This article was written by John Duggan and appeared originally in Cascade Courier in July 2009.
Skid lid, brain bucket, helmet—no matter what you call it, it is your most important cycling accessory. Properly wearing an approved helmet may mean the difference between sustaining relatively minor injuries and catastrophic head trauma if you are involved in a bicycle crash. Head injuries cause about 75% of the 800 to 900 deaths resulting from bicycle related incidents in the U.S. each year. According to a study conducted by Harborview Medical Center, approved helmets can cut the risk of serious head injuries by 85%.
While we are all familiar with Washington's mandatory seat belt law (RCW 46.61.688) and the “click-it or ticket” campaign, you might be surprised to learn that Washington does not have a statewide mandatory bicycle helmet law. Although some states have a mandatory helmet law for children under the age of 16, none of the 50 states have a statewide helmet law for adults. For example, Oregon Revised Statutes Section 814.485 mandates that cyclists under the age of 16 wear an approved bicycle helmet while riding in public spaces.
Washington's most populated counties (King, Snohomish, and unincorporated Pierce) have laws mandating that all cyclists regardless of age wear an approved helmet. The same is true of the major cities such as Tacoma, Bellevue and Spokane. The helmet law pertaining to cyclists in King County, including Seattle, is found in Title 9 of the King County Board of Health regulations. Section 9.10.010 (A) provides in pertinent part as follows:
Any person operating or riding on a bicycle...on a public roadway, bicycle path or any right-of-way or publicly owned facilities located in King County including Seattle, shall wear a protective helmet designed for bicycle safety. Such helmet shall meet or exceed the safety standards adopted by [CPSC, ANSI, Snell or ASTM]...the helmet must be equipped with either a neck or chin strap that shall be fastened securely while the bicycle is in motion.
In King County, the penalty for failing to wear an approved helmet is $30. If a first-time offender provides proof that he/she purchased a helmet between the date of the infraction and the court date, the court will dismiss the citation. Other jurisdictions in Washington have a similar penalty.
You might also be surprised to learn that in King County, Bellevue, Tacoma and other jurisdictions, a parent or guardian can be cited and fined for allowing children under 18 years of age to ride a bicycle without an approved helmet. For example, section 9.10.010 of the King County Board of Health regulation provides in part and in part as follows:
The guardian of a person under the age of 18 years shall not knowingly allow, or fail to take reasonable steps to prevent, that person from operating or riding on a bicycle...on a public roadway, bicycle path or on any right-of-way or publicly owned facilities located in King County including Seattle, unless that person is wearing a helmet that meets the requirements of subsection (A) of this section.
For a list of Washington cities and counties requiring helmets while cycling go here. For additional information see the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute website. For information on how to obtain free or low-cost helmets for children please check out the Cascade Bicycle Club Education Foundation's website.
Wear your helmet! It is not only the smart thing to do, in most places we ride, it is the law.