Will Seattle’s Helmet Law Be a Drag on Its New Bike-Share System?

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray led an inaugural Pronto bike share ride. Everyone wore helmets, as is required by law. Photo: City of Seattle

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray led an inaugural Pronto bike share ride. Everyone wore helmets, as is required by law. Photo: City of Seattle

In what will likely be the largest bike-share expansion in the U.S. this year, Seattle’s Pronto launched last week with 500 bikes.

Local media is reporting the system hosted about 4,000 rides its first week. That’s generally seen as a positive sign, about in line with what DC’s successful Capital Bikeshare’s early totals.

But this bike-share launch is a little more complicated than most, because Seattle has a mandatory helmet law for riders of all ages. Riding a bike in Seattle without the proper head gear can land you an $81 ticket.

Pronto bike-share will eventually have helmet rental equipment, but that won’t be available for about six months, so instead the city is loaning helmets on the honor system. The helmets will be sanitized after each use, and wrapped in a plastic coating. How well that will work remains to be seen.

Seattle’s alt weekly the Stranger pointed out that the helmet law could be a major drawback for the system. The money that is being poured into the experimental helmet vending system could have been used for additional stations, the paper’s Ansel Herz pointed out.

Gordon Price, director of the City Program at Simon Frazier University in British Columbia, wrote on his blog Price Tags that the “only places” around the world where bike-share systems “weren’t wildly successful” were cities that have helmet laws, like Melbourne, Australia.

Mayor Ed Murray has made it pretty clear that he is not in favor of eliminating the city’s helmet law, saying it saves on health care costs. This is highly questionable for a few reasons. Helmet laws have been shown to discourage cycling, and the more cyclists there are, the safer cycling becomes. Furthermore, bike-share has proven to be extremely safe, without a single fatality in more than 23 million total U.S. bike-share trips. Though it was widely misreported, a recent study found a decline in total head injuries following the introduction of bike-sharing in American cities. And of course, exercise, including cycling, improves health overall.

Some cities, like Dallas and Mexico City, have eliminated or modified helmet laws to help ensure the success of their bike-share systems.

Hopefully, Pronto’s success won’t be hindered, but it will be interesting to watch what happens in the coming months.