Racial disparities in bicycle helmet law force King County Board of Health decision
On October 21, the King County Board of Health discussed the rescinding of a county law that requires cyclists to wear helmets due to data identifying racial and socio-economic disparities in the application of the law by the police.
In June, council heard a briefing and panel discussion on bicycle helmet laws in King County and the disparate impacts of helmet enforcement. The data presented demonstrated that citations were issued to Blacks, Aboriginals and people of color more frequently than white cyclists, and that homeless people said the requirement for helmets was a frequently cited reason for engage with law enforcement.
Now the county leaders are trying to decide the role of government in enforcing public safety rules which should be common sense; how this application can be fair; and whether the use of law enforcement to enforce good public safety practices is effective in the first place.
During the public comment period of the board of health meeting, many public health experts, advocates and people with bicycle brain injuries testified on behalf of the importance of bicycle helmets in reducing the risk of cycling. permanent brain damage.
“There were a lot of people in the public comments commenting on an issue that is not before us today,” said Girmay Zahilay, board member and member of the King County Council. “Absolutely, helmets are effective. Absolutely, people should wear them. There isn’t a single person on the Board of Health who hasn’t already assumed these things to be true in their analysis. The issues before us are the methods of enforcement, the involvement of the police in non-criminal activity, the financial impact of citations, and whether there are any alternative routes we can take to achieve a very high level of Adherence to helmet use without the potentially negative consequences of police contact and disparate impacts.
Policy and public interest
The government could be seen to have a public interest in reducing these types of brain damage. Permanent head injuries have a negative impact on both the economy and the well-being not only of the person who suffered the injury, but also of their family and those who depend on them. Seventeen towns in the county have their own bicycle helmet mandate, including Auburn, Bellevue, Black Diamond, Burien, Des Moines, Duvall, Enumclaw, Federal Way, Issaquah, Kent, Lake Forest Park, Maple Valley, North Bend, Pacific , Renton, SeaTac and Snoqualmie.
However, with racism itself declared a public health crisis by the King County Board of Health, they now have to balance two different threats to public safety: wearing bicycle helmets and the unintended consequences of enforcement methods. .
In public comments, Seattle attorney Melissa Carter cited an ACLU study on racial disparities in traffic control in Florida. The study found “significant” racial disparities among those who were arrested and cited by police for seat belt violations, another security measure imposed.
“The ACLU has not proposed removing seat belt laws as a solution,” Carter said. “Rather,” they said, “let’s look at the underlying causes and diagnose the problem of conscious or unconscious bias in policing. ”
Tiffani McCoy, advocacy director for Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project, testified in favor of repealing the helmet law, saying it was used as a way for police to “harass” members of the community BIPOC as well as the homeless, while people like tourists are allowed to break the helmet law without consequence.
“We cannot maintain policies that we know are actively harming vulnerable and marginalized communities,” McCoy said.
Seattle children’s doctor Beth Ebel called the debate over whether to keep the helmet law or repeal it in the name of fairness a “false dichotomy.”
“Racism is harmful. It also causes injury and scarring, but it’s not a compromise between the two. We can have a helmet law and also have a law and a program that promotes fairness, ”she said.
Lee Lambert, executive director of the Cascade Bicycle Club, supported the repeal of the current helmet law in favor of increased safety education and helmet access in the region. His organization provides low cost $ 10 helmets to anyone who needs them. Lambert argued for a “proactive” approach to helmet safety as opposed to a “punitive” approach.
The board ultimately decided to defer voting on the matter until its next meeting.
Jeanne Kohl-Welles, board member and member of the King County Council, urged the board to wait and explore more data and information before repealing the helmet law. She feared that safety education efforts would not be effective for populations who needed them most and that the health council’s view of repealing a law requiring helmets to appear seemed to give the green light to cyclists without helmets. .