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The Cult of Bike Helmets

Last year, health officials in Seattle decided to stop requiring bicyclists to wear helmets. Independent research found that nearly half of Seattle’s helmet tickets in…

Monday, Jan 16

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Last year, health officials in Seattle decided to stop requiring bicyclists to wear helmets. Independent research found that nearly half of Seattle’s helmet tickets in recent years went to unhoused people, while Black and Native American cyclists in the city were four times and two times more likely, respectively, than white cyclists to be cited.

Whether people should wear helmets was not the motivation behind the repeal, King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay said at the time . “The question is whether a helmet law that is enforced by police, on balance, produces results that outweigh the harms the law creates.” For lawmakers, the answer was clear: The potential benefits of a helmet mandate were not worth the harms it did to marginalized Seattle residents.

But some local bike advocates argued that there was a second advantage: Repealing the law could make riding more safe. Helmet mandates intimidate potential riders, they argued, by framing cycling as an activity so dangerous it necessitates body armor. That, in turn, can suppress ridership, and take away the safety benefits of riding in numbers. The more bicyclists take up space on the road, the more visible they become to drivers. And as cars more regularly contend with bikes, the more consideration bikes will get in conversations about transit safety and road infrastructure.

Other jurisdictions have done away with their helmet mandates too: In 2020 Tacoma, Washington , repealed its requirement; in 2014 Dallas did the same for adults. These repeals push back at the notion that bike […]

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