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Board of Health to weigh how helmet laws may discriminate against homeless individuals

Summary

After a Crosscut story in December reported that data in Seattle showed nearly half of all helmet citations going to people experiencing homelessness, King County Board of Health member Jeanne Kohl-Welles pushed successfully on Thursday to include the issue in the 2021 board work plan.

Story

After a Crosscut story in December reported that data in Seattle showed nearly half of all helmet citations going to people experiencing homelessness, King County Board of Health member Jeanne Kohl-Welles pushed successfully on Thursday to include the issue in the 2021 board work plan.

“I’m pleased that today the King County Board of Health added the subject of disparate impacts of bicycle helmet laws in King County to our work plan for this year. Unfortunately, the intent of a policy does not necessarily always align with the outcome,” said Kohl-Welles. 

“What’s important to do here is really dig deep into the enforcement patterns of the helmet law and gain a better understanding on how this impacts King County residents. While I have supported the helmet law, I believe that if this policy is causing disproportionate harm on already marginalized communities, including individuals experiencing homelessness, we absolutely need to explore how to facilitate safe biking practices without criminalization. I appreciate that David Kroman’s Crosscut article brought this issue to the forefront and I look forward to exploring this issue further with my BoH colleagues.”

Data in Austin and Dallas, Texas found that enforcement of mandatory helmet laws tended to discriminate against people of color and as a result those cities either repealed or changed those laws. In Tampa, Florida, nearly 80% of bicycling-related citations during a three-year period went to African-Americans, even though they made up only 25% of the population.

“An evaluation of the helmet law in our county will be an important body of work this year for the Board of Health,” said Joe McDermott, a King County Councilmember who serves as Chair of the Board of Health. “Bicycling must be a safe and healthy transportation opportunity in every community, and we must ensure we aren’t contributing to inequitable and systemic problems for marginalized individuals dealing with law enforcement and the legal system. I’m looking forward to a robust public conversation on this issue, informed by data, research and the experience of the residents of King County.”

Lime and Jump bikes are now ubiquitous in downtown Seattle and beyond, and while city and county ordinances require riders to wear helmets, the companies don’t provide them, leaving riders on the hook for carrying their own helmets.

Kohl-Welles’ amendment calls for the issue of disparate impacts to be further explored by the Board of Health to determine if changing or repealing King County’s helmet laws would improve equity.

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