Seattle's Homeless Bearing the Brunt of Helmet Citations

Almost half of bike helmet citations in the city are issued to people experiencing homelessness.

1 minute read

December 28, 2020, 10:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Protected Bike Lane

joshua_putnam / Flickr

Seattle's all-ages bicycle helmet law has long prompted criticism, and new data shows uneven enforcement that disproportionately affects the unhoused. Since 2017, Seattle police have only given out 117 citations for lack of helmet use. Of those, 50 or more were given to homeless people, with that number growing to 60% in 2020. This low-end estimate, arrived at through an analysis of citations and other public records, shows the disproportionate burden of the helmet law, with enforcement primarily targeted at people least able to pay the ticket—or purchase a helmet. When a law is consistently flouted by a large percentage of the population, police can "pick and choose who they stop," says Tom Fucoloro of the Seattle Bike Blog. This vast amount of discretion opens the door to discrimination and uneven enforcement.

Seattle's bike helmet citations are indicative of a broader trend. Studies in other parts of the country show similar disparities in the enforcement of low-level offenses such as jaywalking, prompting questions about the unintended consequences of this kind of policing and how such unwarranted stops amount to excuses to "stop-and-frisk." Barb Chamberlain, active transportation director for the Washington State Department of Transportation, sees a pattern. "There’s a large bucket that the bike helmet thing fits into," she says, "which is the way we’ve criminalized normal human behavior."

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