Rantz: Seattle activists claim bicycle helmet laws are racist, council may repeal
Seattle’s increasingly delusional bicycle activists now claim the county’s bicycle laws are racist.
Or, rather, Seattle Police use helmet laws to target bicyclists of color. But only Black and Native American riders. Police racism doesn’t extend to Asian bicyclists, apparently.
The argument presented is, of course, lazy, disingenuous, and laughable. It’s based on so-called “disproportionality” of who gets $30 tickets. And rather than explore the topic with a critical eye, The Seattle Times is there to amplify it because … social justice!
A rather laughable argument
According to The Seattle Times, “a chorus of individuals and organizations” are demanding that King County’s mandate that bicyclists wear helmets be repealed. On race, the claim is that enforcement is “disproportionate” against Black and Native American bicyclists.
Among the groups calling for repeal are Washington Bikes and Cascade Bicycle Club.
The data used to claim “severe racial disparities” in enforcement is based on a King County Helmet Law Working Group study created by Central Seattle Greenways and compiled by 26-year-old University of Washington Ph.D. student Ethan Campbell.
It’s not very compelling data — it’s the kind you strain to use to back up a belief you held before you even looked at the data. In fact, it doesn’t tell a consistent story, other than that the county doesn’t give out many helmet infractions at all.
There’s no compelling data
The non-peer reviewed study only looks at 1,667 tickets (out of about 6,000) between 2003-2020. That’s fewer than 130 tickets per year.
It compares a 13-year-span of tickets to bicyclist demographic data from 2019, which is a major red flag. When you’re arguing disproportionality, you don’t look at one year’s worth of demographic data and compare it to over a decade. In this case, it’s especially ludicrous since in 2019, there were only 118 tickets given out.
The data suggests Black bicyclists received helmet infractions at almost four times the rate of white cyclists. Black bicyclists made up 4.7% of riders, but amassed 17.3% of the tickets over 13 years. That’s only about 288 tickets.
Native American bicyclists were given tickets at two times the rate of white riders, relative to their share of bicycling population. But that rate represents fewer than 20 tickets over the 13-year-period.
What the data doesn’t explain: How many anti-helmet scofflaws earned more than one ticket? When and where were the tickets given out? Were they given other infractions, too, (meaning, was it other behavior that caught an officer’s attention that also earned an infraction)? We don’t know. Campbell doesn’t tell us.
The data is supposed to convince you that the enforcement is racist. But you’d have to ignore other data to come up with that scurrilous claim.
Asian data ignored
Just under 18% of Seattle bicyclists are Asian. They earn tickets for helmet infractions at a rate ten times less than whites. To reasonable people, one could argue this shows police aren’t targeting minority riders.
To Campbell, the data suggests the bigoted police have a soft spot for Asians.
“It was staggering for me to see that Asian cyclists get cited for not wearing helmets at a rate 11 times lower than expected for their share of bike trips,” Campbell said. “What that tells me is that police are being totally discretionary in whom they stop. Police are able to use this law to target certain communities that, for whatever reason, they already want to stop.”
There’s quite literally no data to back up Campbell’s guess. It’s just a partisan hot take. The data actually suggests Asian bicyclists follow the helmet laws more than white, Black, and Native bicyclists. But that doesn’t fit Campbell’s bias, so it’s not mentioned.
It’s also worth noting that white riders get tickets at a proportionate rate. They represent 75.9% of bicyclists, and earn nearly 73% of tickets. Maybe the selectively racist cops also hate white people? If they were to get special treatment, wouldn’t they earn far fewer tickets?
Researcher declines interview because I disagree with him
Campbell, the researcher, declined an invitation to join the show and discuss his research. He cited my previous discussion on this issue. He disagrees with assessment, so he won’t discuss it with me. That sounds about right for activists here.
“Jason suggests that the disparities in who receives helmet infractions could result from a situation of fair, unbiased enforcement by police,” Campbell told my producer via email. “As Jason’s argument goes, the fact that nearly half of infractions are issued to homeless individuals could simply be because of extremely low rates of helmet use in the homeless community. This suggestion of fair policing is easily disproven.”
So easily disproven he wouldn’t discuss it on the air to make me look foolish.
Seattle Times amplifies nonsense
Lacking a compelling argument, Times staffer Michelle Baruchman frames the article with an unrelated story from an activist. She’s out to show people of color don’t get to ride bikes free from bigotry!
The Times’ coverage focuses on one experience of an activist: Edwin Lindo.
Lindo, which the Times notes “identifies as Central American Indigenous from Nicaragua and El Salvador,” was out for a bike ride with a Black friend. On Mercer Island, a white man spit on Lindo.
Baruchman doesn’t actually explain why the man spit on Lindo (though not his Black friend). She must not have been curious enough to ask; he is a person of color, and her goal is to frame the perils of bicycling while Central American Indigenous from Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Seattle Times then just contradicts the very point it tries to make
Both Lindo and his friend, the article explains, “viewed the encounter as a racist attempt to exclude them from the biking community.” Assuming this incident was inspired by racism, there’s quite literally no reason to assume it had anything to do with riding a bike.
“But even before that incident, Lindo knew Black and brown people were treated differently while bike-riding, taking transit, driving and using other forms of transportation,” the article continues.
Then, Baruchman pivots to the helmet law. She uses Lindo to argue helmet enforcement isn’t really racist. It’s that bicyclists of color can’t afford helmets.
“Folks aren’t riding around without helmets because it’s fun. They’re doing it because helmets aren’t cheap,” said Lindo. “Buy them a helmet and you won’t have to penalize them.”
Interesting: Lindo argues that minority riders aren’t wearing helmets because they can’t afford them (though they can afford the bike). This implies white riders can, in fact, afford helmets.
So, in other words, perhaps the “disproportionate” impact has nothing to do with racist cops and everything to do with literally not wearing helmets. Yet, the study’s author claims Black and Native riders (though not Asians) are targets because of their race.
Pick a (bike) lane, folks.
King County Council looks to repeal law
The King County Council may repeal the helmet law. The Democrats on the council will take any positions if it may signal their virtue. Now that this issue is being ridiculously framed as a social justice cause, it seems obvious that a repeal will occur.
“I encourage bicycle riding, but there should not be any sociocultural variation in terms of enforcement and certainly not citations that cost money,” Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles told the Times.
“We need to understand this a lot better to weigh the benefits of enforcing for safety reasons versus unfair enforcement that appears to be happening,” she said, either pretending to have looked at the data or pretending the data backs up her claim.
It’s undoubtedly clear that wearing a helmet protects riders from serious injuries. And with the way many bicyclists try to aggressively compete with drivers, I’m glad they’re compelled to wear helmets. As much as the area’s selfish, militant riders annoy me, and most everyone else, I don’t want them to be injured. And more bicyclists means fewer cars polluting the environment.
But to get rid of this law merely because bicyclists with a white savior complex want to pretend helmet laws are racist is dangerous. Though I suppose one can justify putting lives at risk if it gives them the ability to declare themselves social justice heroes on Twitter.
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