U.S. Cycling orgs call to repeal local helmet laws as study shows discrimination

Cycling groups the Cascade Bicycle Club and Washington Bikes have called on legislators to repeal helmet laws applicable in some U.S. states, citing a new study that shows discrimination to be present in ticketing of black cyclists.

Paul Tolme, now the media head of Seattle and Washington State advocacy groups Cascade and Washington Bikes told CI.N the groups “have been wading into the issue of repealing mandatory helmet laws due to racial bias in enforcement” and the findings are clear.

Tolme wrote to the Washington Bikes page that while black people represent about eight percent of Seattle’s population they received 17% of tickets issued for violating the local bylaw making helmet use while cycling mandatory. 1,667 infractions formed part of the review.

That finding was mirrored in Seattle where police were found to ticket black people at a rate of four times that at which white people were issued tickets. This data came from the King County Helmet Law Working Group, of which Washington Bikes is a member.

The latter finding is even more jarring as a study of Seattle’s ridership found that black people made up less than five percent of riders locally.

The Cascade Bicycle Club and Washington Bikes are now working alongside the Helmet Law Working Group to gather further data and community feedback in a bid to bring about remove helmet laws King County and Seattle. Washington Ph.D student Ethan Campbell is behind the research, which he hopes to submit for peer review.

Both organisations support the voluntary use of helmets and do actually require their use on the organised Free Group Rides and lessons. It is slower vehicle speeds and protected bike lanes that the organisations feel would make a much greater difference to cycle use and as such a campaign to reduce speed limits to 25mph on most arterial streets runs alongside.

“The data shows conclusively that the number one safety issue for people biking or walking is vehicle speeds,” says Alex Alston, state policy director for Washington Bikes. “Anything we can do to slow down vehicles saves lives.”

It has been found across the globe that such laws don’t tend to have a net positive effect on cycling, with many riders perceiving such legislation as a further barrier to an activity that arguably should be encouraged in a bid to ease congestion and improve public health.

Many cycling campaigners will argue that safe cycling infrastructure is by far a more effective way to encourage cycling while keeping everyone safe. It is of course widely known in the industry that helmets are not designed to protect a rider in the event of a crash with a motor vehicle and so many feel an element of victim blaming is at play when such debates crop up.

Graphic: Washington Bikes