Is Seattle’s Helmet Law Killing Its Bike-Share?

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, second from right, on a ride to inaugurate Pronto bike-share two years ago.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, second from right, on a ride to inaugurate Pronto bike-share two years ago. Photo: Seattle Office of the Mayor

Bike-share in Seattle should be doing great. The city has a decent bike lane network for an American city, and cycling is on the rise. Transit options are also plentiful, and bike-share should fit right in as a complement to buses and trains.

But bike-share has floundered in Seattle, and the City Council is weighing a $5 million infusion. Back when the system, known as Pronto, launched in 2014, we wondered if the city’s mandatory helmet law would hinder its success. In light of its current struggles, Tom Fucoloro at Seattle Bike Blog raises the same question:

Though I understand that it may seem counter-intuitive at first, best practices from the the safest cycling cities in the world do not include helmet laws. In fact, nearly all major cities in the U.S. and across the globe have declined to regulate bicycling headwear for adults.

But surely with good intentions, King County’s Board of Health decided in the 90s to require helmets for people of all ages, and that rule started applying to Seattle after a 2003 City Council vote to adopt the county’s regulation. 13 years later, that decision is very likely hampering the city’s ability to get the most from its bike share efforts.

How big an impact is the helmet law having? That’s nearly impossible to say for sure, but bike share experts are pretty much in agreement that it’s an impediment.

“[A helmet law] will kill your system regardless,” Baltimore’s bike share leader Scott Tillman told the Seattle Times’ David Gutman recently. “You can still encourage it, but when you pass a law like that you have a lot more challenges. Once you make it a law, you just kill it.”

But Andrew Glass Hastings, SDOT’s Director of Transit and Mobility, does not think the helmet law is a leading factor holding back bike share here.

Fucoloro says that politicians don’t want to be seen as “anti-safety” by repealing the helmet law — even though doing so would likely lead people to bike more, setting off the positive feedback loop of safety-in-numbers.

Here’s what we’re also reading this morning: TransitCenter explains how transit agencies can use low-cost, quick-start “tactical transit” projects to deliver service improvements to riders. And Green City Blue Lake reports on Cleveland’s impressive plan to convert excess roadway space into a network for bike lanes.

  • Kevin Love

    Bike share has been a success everywhere it has been seriously tried on a large-scale basis. Except for Seattle and Melbourne, Australia. What do those two cities have in common? A mandatory bike helmet law.

    As the article makes clear, helmet laws actually have the effect of making cycling more dangerous by reducing the safety in numbers effect. Worse yet, they make the population as a whole more unsafe. How many cases of stokes, heart attacks, diabetes, obesity, etc, happened only because their victim was deterred from cycling by a mandatory helmet law?

  • AMH

    The only thing worse than biking without a helmet is not biking at all.

  • J

    There’s research that supports the notion that helmet laws reduce cycling rates without any demonstrable effect on the rate of cycling injuries. Is it any wonder that bicycle advocacy organization are nearly unanimous in their opposition to helmet laws:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/do-bike-helmet-laws-really-save-people/2013/06/03/6a6532b4-c6df-11e2-9245-773c0123c027_story.html?utm_term=.880c2049571e

  • Joe R.

    I can unequivocally state I never would have had any desire whatsoever to ride a bike as a child had today’s mandatory child helmet laws been in effect. Having to wear a helmet is both uncomfortable and it kills the spontaneity of just hopping on the bike whenever you feel like it. Likewise, despite being an avid adult cyclist now, if we passed and enforced mandatory helmet laws for adults I would give up riding in a heartbeat. Not worth it if I’m wearing an uncomfortable, hot thing on my head which dulls my senses and in general makes me feel like I’m at work in a construction zone instead of out riding for fun.

    Thankfully we’re gradually realizing how pointless helmet laws are. I hope we’ll soon start repealing the helmet laws for minors.

  • J. Geoff Rove

    The helmet law is for all of KIng County, which includes the suburbs like Bellevue. I guess each town decides on their enforcement priority, but getting a ticket from a town with “idle officers” looking to write tickets is a bummer. The only practical need for the law is the hilly terrain and wet pavement there.

  • Cat

    At the risk of stating the obvious, I wonder if they have considered “rental helmets” to go with the bike share. Doesn’t seem like it should be too awfully difficult to coordinate. Just a thought…

  • Fish

    They do/did have rental helmets with the bikes. They had a helmet vending machine at every station and then they cleaned them every night.

  • Fish

    The helmet law certainly did not help. IMHO, I think it was a lot more about the placement of the stations. Although it might seem obvious to have put the stations in the densest areas of the city, these were also the areas with some of the worst bike infrastructure and most amount of transit alternatives. It would have been a lot better off if they had put stations along the burke gilman trail and some of the outer neighborhoods that are still dense but significantly less serviced by public transit. Additionally, bike theft is rampant in this city. I refuse to lock my own personal bike up downtown, but I would have been more than willing to have paid for a yearly membership if the bikeshare serviced my neighborhood.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Agreed. And some of us who might want to use a bikeshare bike during the workday don’t want to return to the office with helmet-head hair.

  • Walter Crunch

    I rode Seattle’s bike share. The time limits were too short and as for the helmet? It rode in the basket in front of me. Right past several cops.

  • Walter Crunch

    Helmet laws are an American way of reducing their guilt over car deaths.

  • Corvus Corax

    I think you mean ‘founder’. To flounder is to thrash about wildly, whereas ‘founder’ means ‘to collapse’.

  • localmile

    I always prefer using bikeshare to other modes when I’m visiting cities. The two cities where this is not the case are Seattle and Birmingham AL. Seattle because of the helmet requirement and Birmingham because of the lack of safe bikeways.

    Bikeshare is easy, fast, and convenient without helmets. A PITA with helmets, not to mention the issue of helmet hair.

  • dfiler

    The author used flounder correctly. Check out the 2nd definition, to proceed or act clumsily or ineffectually.

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