E. Port Angeles, Washington
Effective date: January 1, 1994; penalty provisions effective January 1, 1995.
Ages covered: All ages and guardians of persons under age 16.
Penalty: $15 fine.
Agency enforcing the law: City police.
Legislative language is reprinted in Section VIII E.
Port Angeles, WA, is a predominately middle-income white suburban community; population is approximately 19,000.
Impetus For Legislation:
Port Angeles is among the many local jurisdictions in the State of Washington that have enacted a bicycle helmet use ordinance in the absence of a state law. According to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, Port Angeles and 16 other Washington communities have adopted bicycle helmet use ordinances, most of them for bicyclists of all ages. (For information as of April 2002; see Helmet Use Laws for Bicycle Riders, Section IX A, page 154.)
Jurisdictions considering bicycle helmet use laws may be motivated to do so as the result of a serious crash; however, that was not the case in Port Angeles. At the time of the bill’s passage, the city manager was an avid bicyclist and, perhaps most importantly, one of the city’s seven council members was a physician and a “sometime” bicycle rider.
The support of this councilman and the city manager, as well as “a very vocal” retired physician and others in the medical community were key to the ordinance’s introduction and passage. Their interest in preventing deaths and injuries and their awareness of the effectiveness of bicycle helmets in doing so motivated their efforts to enact the ordinance.
The Bicycle Helmet Environment And Existing Efforts:
Port Angeles is seen as bicycle-friendly, with an active bicycling community and a bicycle club. At the time the council was considering the bicycle helmet use law, the community had little in place in terms of bicycle helmet education, give-away programs, or activities to encourage bicycle helmet use.
The Process of Adoption:
Spearheaded by the city council member who authored the ordinance, the council’s consideration and adoption of the proposal was not controversial. The city council “batted around” a variety of approaches to the law, including requiring bicycle helmet use only by minors, an approach used in many jurisdictions. They concluded that the most sensible approach was an ordinance that applied to all bicyclists.
Part of the council’s consideration of the ordinance involved council hearings. According to one observer, the hearings did not contain a lot of conflict and not much testimony was submitted. The council heard primarily from supporters of a bicycle helmet use law, including health and medical experts. Some support also came from the bike community. Emergency medicine professionals and pediatricians were very helpful in passage of the bill. Involvement by law enforcement officials was somewhat helpful. Other professionals and community groups did not play a major role.
Both statistical and anecdotal arguments were described as somewhat helpful in the process.
The most influential arguments made by those who opposed the legislation were that the police were already overburdened and that the law would infringe on individuals’ rights.
Implementation of the Ordinance:
The law was implemented in phases. The bill did not take effect until six and a half months after enactment. The ordinance directed the City Manager to work with public and private agencies “to develop a program of helmet awareness designed to promote use of helmets by all ages and a program to subsidize use of helmets by low-income families.”
The community also undertook a variety of programs between the bill’s enactment and its effective date: education programs, bicycle helmet giveaways, and a news media awareness campaign. These efforts were conducted primarily through the police department. The education and giveaway programs were continued after the law took effect. The city’s police department also sponsors an annual bicycle rodeo.
The responsibility for educating as well as enforcing the ordinance fell to the Port Angeles police department. There has been little community or organizational involvement in promoting bicycle helmet use other than police department activities. The police believe this lack undermines the effectiveness of the law. “Unfortunately, like many laws, our bicycle helmet law was passed with good intentions to address a problem that should involve the community as a whole, not just the police,” said one police official.
The penalties for violating the law were also phased in. The ordinance allowed only written warnings to be issued for the first year the law took effect. The city police also had discretion in enforcing the bicycle helmet use law; officers could continue to issue warnings instead of fining violators. A bicyclist’s first infraction for violating the law could be dismissed upon proof of bicycle helmet ownership.
The community reaction to the law seems to be acceptance. One reason for this may be the approach to enforcement taken by the police department, which is not focused on issuing citations. One official describes enforcement of the law as “casual; we prefer education. Increased enforcement might trigger public opposition. The police already make enough negative contacts.”
The many demands on a police department affect the resources that the department can direct toward enforcement of the law. “We usually have three or four patrol officers on duty at any given time in a city of 19,000 residents,” said a police department official. “Officers do cite offenders who are involved in accidents or somehow otherwise blatantly ride a bicycle recklessly. Otherwise the officers tend to ignore violations. We also have a number of tourists who ride without helmets.”
Bicycle Helmet Use Law Effectiveness:
The council’s deliberations during passage of the ordinance did not include discussion of evaluating the law once enacted. The community has not undertaken any reviews of the law, ridership patterns or the community’s crash statistics to determine the ordinance’s effectiveness. No before-and-after measures of bicycle helmet use were gathered.
One local official stated that it would make sense to look at the law’s effectiveness, “but it has not been a priority. We only have so many resources. We should do an evaluation of many of our laws.” Local officials did report that bicycle helmet use increased as a result of the ordinance, based on anecdotal information.
From the bill’s introduction (and even before) through its enactment and implementation, one observer felt that two facets were missing throughout: news media education and acknowledgement of the resources needed by police. The effort necessary for a successful bicycle helmet use law was likened to the constant effort many jurisdictions now use to support their seat belt law. Once the ordinance is in place, on-going efforts are necessary to inform the public about the effectiveness of bicycle helmets, the need for the law, and its provisions for enforcement. Getting this information out consistently through the news media is seen as the most effective means to meet this need.
Bicycle helmet use law supporters must also be aware of the many competing demands on law enforcement time and resources. “Quite frankly, I don’t think most law enforcement agencies will give bicycle helmet laws high priorities. Having said that, I do believe bicycle helmet laws are okay, but officers should have discretion in enforcing them. I think a state law would be effective or more effective.”
“I wish we were more effective in addressing the issue. We’re a small jurisdiction; I believe until we have a state law, it will be a problem for jurisdictions for getting the word out. If there is a state law, then education efforts would come forward from the state. You’ll have a city council person that’s supportive of the helmet law and will work to get it passed, then that person will leave office, so that after a while the support is not there.”
“The police can’t do it alone. If you turn it into a state program, then there will be state resources behind the law, educational efforts; then all enforcement agencies can enforce the law. They will all know this is the law, they know the intricacies. Citizens move from town to town, you have tourists coming in, and they don’t know the law (under local ordinances). It has not been that effective for us, it’s been a tool. You need a coalition. I think it should be bumped up to another level.”