Tacoma City Council should rethink repeal of bike helmet law

Mandating people to behave responsibly isn’t the ideal way to make them safer. What a wonderful world this would be if all adults protected themselves and their families based purely on free will, compassion and common sense — not fear of breaking the law.

Alas, such a world is fantasy, at least in our solar system. That’s why government leaders long ago enacted seatbelt, child car seat and motorcycle helmet laws. It’s why Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a statewide face covering mandate last month as Washington’s COVID-19 outbreak spiked.

It’s also why both the Pierce County Council and Tacoma City Council adopted bicycle helmet ordinances in 1994, around the time many other municipal governments did the same.

The intent wasn’t punitive; both local laws allowed fines to be waived if any ticketed rider later obtains a helmet. The purpose was to change behaviors, curtail preventable head injuries and keep kids and adults out of emergency rooms and morgues.

Now Tacoma is unwisely going the other direction, like a wayward cyclist riding against the flow of traffic. Last month the City Council approved a series of transportation code changes. To our astonishment, it included dumping the helmet requirement.

Head protection is important, they agreed, but Tacomans are quite capable of reaching that conclusion on their own.

We urge them to reconsider, at least with regard to children. Public health professionals can attest that helmet mandates are a singularly effective tool to curtail severe and fatal injuries in bicycle crashes.

A National Transportation Safety Board study last year found that in communities with all-age helmet requirements, cyclists involved in accidents were twice as likely to be wearing head protection.

Local champions of helmet laws can be found at the Center for Childhood Safety at Mary Bridge Hospital in Tacoma. It’s too bad their insights weren’t sought by the city; Erin Summa, the center’s health promotion coordinator, said they weren’t consulted.

The center does public education about safety equipment such as car seats, life jackets and yes, bike helmets. “We will continue to do that work,” Summa told us, “but now we won’t have the extra support (of a city ordinance) for those resistant to our messaging.”

The City Council took the action as part of a broader “micromobility” package. The overall purpose is positive; encouraging people to safely use scooters, skateboards, bicycles and walking shoes to get around Tacoma is a worthy goal.

The ordinance also prudently cleans up obsolete parts of city transportation code — for instance, a rule that anyone selling a new or used bicycle must provide detailed information to the police chief about each bike sold. (Mike Brown, owner of Tacoma Bike on Sixth Avenue, told us Wednesday he was unaware of that rule.)

But a helmet repeal? During a pandemic when public attention is distracted? At a time when cycling popularity is exploding across America due to its open-air, socially distant qualities?

That’s a big-time headscratcher.

Council members did it largely out of concern that the law may be enforced inequitably against people of color. But staff didn’t present local data to back that up — only studies involving cyclists in Florida and jaywalkers in Seattle. Moreover, few Tacomans are actually ticketed for not wearing a helmet.

We requested race-ethnicity data this week; it shows that TPD cited 16 people between September 2018 and May 2020, of whom 10 were white, five were Black and one was unknown. That’s something to keep an eye on and for police to discuss, but it’s hardly a trend, nor is it a statistically significant sample.

City Council members had a final discussion before unanimously approving the code updates in July. To watch them explain the helmet rule repeal was to observe an exercise in well-intentioned but wrongheaded groupthink.

John Hines pledged that he and his two young children would keep wearing helmets, then made the silly statement that without the repeal, someone might be arrested for not wearing one. Come on, John; you know this was a civil, not a criminal, offense.

Lillian Hunter criticized the TNT for publishing a headline that dared tell the truth: You’re now free to cycle unhelmeted in Tacoma.

Catherine Ushka put on the best show. Donning a helmet, she promised to keep wearing it on her frequent cycling trips. “I don’t need to be mandated to do things that help save my life.”

So will the council next repeal Tacoma’s fireworks ban, also largely educational and seldom enforced? Will council members speak out against the governor’s face covering order?

Of course not. In fact, Mayor Victoria Woodards issued a statement the day Inslee announced his mask mandate; she said strong measures were needed to defeat COVID-19 and called the health and safety of Tacomans a “top priority.”

City leaders have taken good steps to prioritize bicycle safety, such as building more protected bike lanes and promoting helmet giveaways to children.

But casting aside the 26-year-old helmet law undermines these investments, surrenders an important educational tool and defies common sense.