Dallas Wants to Kill the Bike Helmet Law for Adults but Keep It for Kids. Is That Constitutional?

A kids-only helmet ordinance would pose certain enforcement challenges, i.e. how to tell if this guy's under 17.
A kids-only helmet ordinance would pose certain enforcement challenges, i.e. how to tell if this guy's under 17.

OK. So maybe the bike-helmet mandate the Dallas City Council passed 18 years ago wasn't really about protecting people's heads. Maybe it was really about giving cops in general an extra reason to interrogate suspicious-looking people in poor, minority neighborhoods, and for one cop in particular to express an apparent personal animus toward bareheaded bike riders.

All rhetoric aside, that's what the data show, according to Tom Benning's deep dive into the numbers in The Dallas Morning News this morning. There have been no helmet citations written at bike hot spots like White Rock Lake and the Katy Trail. There have been a bunch downtown, almost all written by a single officer, Ceaphus Gordon. The vast majority of the rest -- 96 percent -- were written in poor, minority neighborhoods. That's not counting the no-helmet stops that didn't result in tickets but did result in, say, a drug arrest.

(Side note: Benning's dive was much deeper than ours from two weeks ago, which we subsequently learned was incomplete, representing only half of the tickets that were issued in 2013 and 2014. More on that in the original post.)

That data provided the backdrop for the Dallas City Council's briefing this morning on a proposed repeal of the bike-helmet ordinance, which, aside from some extra hand-wringing over the curious enforcement strategy, mirrored in tone and substance the two previous committee hearings on the subject: Adults, the general consensus went, are old enough to make their own choices. (Jerry Allen went so far as to announce that doesn't wear a seat belt.) But the ordinance should be preserved for ages 16 and under.

Only two council members dissented from that approach: Vonciel Hill, because the helmet ordinance "help(s) people make decisions that are more safe, and because we are an automobile-centric city" and Philip Kingston, because he doesn't think the city's helmet ordinance (not to be confused with the helmets themselves) protects anyone, kids or adults.

Kingston also brought up the question of how the kids-only ordinance will be enforced, something the council, in its enthusiasm for protecting the children, hadn't really thought of before.

"Tell me," Kingston asked Dallas Police Chief David Brown, "how a patrol officer will identify a 16-year-old on a bicycle." Looking young is does not constitute reasonable suspicion for pulling someone over, Kingston said. "That's a constitutionally infirm stop. ... You guys can't write these tickets."

Brown's response: "You make a good point."

Basically, a kids-only ordinance would be unenforceable. But will that dull the City Council's passion for protecting kids when it votes on helmet-ordinance repeal next week? Don't bet on it.

Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.

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