This page is about the Austin law and helmet laws
We have a separate page
about statewide (TX) helmet laws.
There is no helmet law for adults in
The helmet law applies to kids under 18 (17 and
under). It is in effect on all public property within
the city limits, including streets, bike trails, and
parks. Violation is a Class C Misdemeanor. The fines are
$20 for first offense at $40 for subsequent offenses. The
initial charge can be dismissed if proof is provided that
a helmet was obtained within 30 days of the offense.
However, we've heard that no tickets have been issued
since 2002. (We're writing this in August 2006.)
The short history is:
- 1996: The City Coucil passed an unpopular all-ages
- 1997: As a result of public outcry, he Council
amended the law to apply only to minors (17 and
- 2006: The Council briefly considered bringing back
the all-ages law, but ultimately took no action.
Helmet law supporters such as former Mayor Bruce Todd
and Dr. Patrick Crocker are still pushing for an all-ages
helmet law. Here's our
response to Dr. Crocker.
See our separate page about what's
wrong with helmet laws. The main problem
with helmet laws is that they discourage cycling, and our
goal is to see cycling increase, not decrease. Also, the
fewer cyclists on the road, the more dangerous it is for
the cyclists who remain. The great cycling cities of the
world -- Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Portland -- don't have
helmet laws...and they have far fewer cycling injuries
than typical U.S. cities. See more about what's
wrong with helmet laws.
History of the 1996
Ballew approached city councilmembers in 1996
and convinced them to pass a helmet law. Ballew's job
involved promoting bike safety to kids and his success
was judged partly on how many kids he could get to wear
helmets. Getting a helmet law onto the books would be a
major victory for him professionally and he succeeded. In
fact, he got the council to pass an all ages
helmet law. Not only that, but the council passed it as
an "emergency" measure, meaning it didn't have to go
through the typical three separate readings, so it became
law before the bicycle community even knew it was on
the table. Many of us were as outraged about the process as
we were about anything else.
The law was passed on May 9, 1996, and started
being enforced on August 18, 1996.
Once enforcement began, many cyclists were arrested
and thrown in jail for not wearing
a helmet -- not simply ticketed. Also, 70% of the
no-helmet tickets given to kids went to black and
Hispanic kids. The League of Bicycling Voters (LOBV)
formed to protest the law. Part of the lobbying effort
included surveying candidates for City Council about
their positions on the helmet law and bike safety. The
candidates were mostly eager to respond; this issue was
on everyone's radar. LOBV circulated a petition calling
for an election so Austin voters could vote on whether to
repeal it, but failed to get enough signatures to get the
measure onto the ballot. other cyclists tried to have the
ordinance declared unconstitutional in court, but were
Although the petition and the judicial efforts failed,
the public outcry was still significant enough that on
Oct. 2, 1997 the City Council amended the helmet
law so that it applies only to minors (17 & under).
They also reduced the fines to $20 for first offense at
$40 for subsequent offenses. This has frequently been
misidentified as a "repeal", but it was not a repeal, it
was an amendment; the law is still on the books for kids.
Between the time the law was made kids-only on Oct. 2,
1997 and January 1999, 92% of the no-helmet tickets given
to kids went to black and Hispanic kids, according to a
review of APD ticket records by the Legaue of Bicycling
Voters. We've heard that no tickets have been issued
since 2002. (We're writing this in August 2006.) Almost
as soon as the law was amended to kids-only, the League
of Bicycling Voters disbanded. There's more on the history
and results of the original Austin helmet law from
the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
We note that Johnny
Hardwick, the voice of Dale Gribble on King of the
Hill, went on record as opposing the helmet law.
The 2006 effort to
bring back the adult helmet law
Then-Mayor Bruce Todd had championed the
original helmet law proposed by Ballew in 1996, only to
see it amended to be kids-only as soon as Todd left
office. In 2005, nearly ten years later, Todd fell
off his bike while cycling and suffered a brain injury.
His doctors claim that his helmet saved his life. Todd
and his wife Elizibeth Christian (who runs a P.R.
company) asked the City Council to consider bringing back
the adult helmet law in the summer of 2006. The League
of Bicycling Voters started up again, with many of
the original leaders. This time around both sides made
use of Internet websites.
The City Council held a public hearing on August
24, 2006. The hearing opened with testimony from
those supporting the measure, including Todd, Christian,
doctors who work in trauma units, and people with brain
injuries, many of them sustained while biking. One such
fellow was on Hill Abel's Bicycle Sports Shop team when
he took a fall in 1992. To this day, he cannot remember
anything that happened before the accident. He proudly
showed off the signed jersey that Lance Armstrong brought
him while he was in the hospital. There were maybe 11
supporters who spoke.
Then came the cyclists' turn, with about 42 people
speaking. Preston Tyree opened for the cyclists, although
he registered his position as "neutral". He pointed out
that helmets should be the last line of defense,
not the first, and if the City wants to make biking
safer, they need to do things to prevent us from getting
hit in the first place. His final quote was:
"The question we should be debating this
evening should be, How do we, as a city, keep cyclists
safe? There are a lot of actions that need to be
taken. A helmet ordinance may be one of them. It may
not be the most important one."
While that quote was already very good, the way he delivered
it was truly inspired. The room erupted
in thunderous applause. The helmet law supporters hadn't
applauded each other when they spoke, so the dynamic in
the room changed greatly at that point, and would
continue as every single cyclist got a round of applause
after speaking. Here is a transcript of my
The League of Bicycling Voters presented an alternate
proposal: an 18-month study of bicycle safety in Austin,
including concrete ways to actually improve conditions
for safe cycling.
The hearing started at 9:30pm and didn't end until
nearly 1:00am. The City Attorney said that because of the
way the item was posted on the agenda, the Council could
not take any action that evening. Mayor Wynn said that
the next step would be for a council member to put an
item back on the agenda for a future meeting so they
could vote on it, whether that item was a helmet law, our
18-month safety study, or both. It appears that there are
not enough votes to support a helmet law so it's unlikely
that a helmet law proposal will make its way back onto a
council agenda. Less clear is whether our 18-month safety
study will make it onto the agenda.
article, Aug. 25, 2006
of City Council heraing, Aug. 24, 2006 (here's my own
Aug. 23, 2006
Texan, July 11, 2006
June 16, 2006
Text of the 1996
Text of the 1996 law.
Here is the text of the law. For a technical reason it
refers to the "1992 Code", but this did not become law until
1996. The official source for this law is the City's
first for that link to work). If the link doesn't work go to
the City of Austin
website and go to Code of Ordinances. If the City's
website doesn't work for you then I can't help you, take it
up with the City.
§ 12-2-31 HELMET REQUIRED.
Source: 1992 Code Section 16-8-44; Ord.
031204-13; Ord. 031211-11.
Except as permitted by Section 12-2-33 (Health
Condition Exemption) a child may not operate or ride
on a bicycle, sidecar, trailer, child carrier, seat,
or other device attached to a bicycle unless the child
is wearing a helmet.
as permitted by Section 12-2-33 (Health Condition
Exemption) a parent may not permit a child to operate
or ride on a bicycle, sidecar, trailer, child carrier
seat, or other device attached to a bicycle unless the
child is wearing a helmet.
this section, a helmet must:
be properly fitted and securely fastened
to the child's head with the straps securely
not be structurally damaged; and
conform to the standards of the American
National Standards Institute, the American Society for
testing and Materials, the Snell Memorial Foundation,
or a federal agency with regulatory jurisdiction over
bicycle helmets at the time of the manufacture of the
Source: 1992 Code Sections 16-8-1 and
16-8-40; Ord. 031204-13; Ord. 031211-11.
§ 12-2-32 APPROVAL OF STANDARDS.
The city council approves the bicycle helmet
standards promulgated by the American National
Standards Institute, the American Society for Testing
and Materials, and the Snell Memorial Foundation.
(B) The city
clerk shall file a copy of the standards in effect on
May 9, 1996 in the clerk's office.
Source: 1992 Code Section 16-8-43; Ord.
031204-13; Ord. 031211-11.
§ 12-2-33 HEALTH CONDITION
child is not required to wear a helmet if the child
has in its immediate possession a health exemption
identification prescribed by this section.
(B) The city
manager shall provide a health exemption
identification to a child with a written
from a licensed physician that states the
child's health condition and explains why the
condition prevents the child from wearing a helmet;
that is approved by the Austin-Travis
County Health and Human Services Department.
(C) The city
manager shall establish procedures to implement this
Source: 1992 Code Section 16-8-45; Ord.
031204-13; Ord. 031211-11.
§ 12-2-34 SALE OF A BICYCLE.
person may not sell a bicycle, bicycle sidecar,
trailer, or child carrier commercially unless the
person provides a written statement to the purchaser
that describes the requirements of this article.
police chief shall prescribe the statement required
under this section and shall provide a sample
statement to a person on request.
(C) A person
who sells bicycles and bicycle equipment shall print
and distribute the statement to purchasers at the
person's own expense.
Source: 1992 Code Section 16-8-41(A); Ord.
031204-13; Ord. 031211-11.
§ 12-2-35 LEASE OF A BICYCLE.
person may not lease a bicycle for use by a child
unless the person:
provides a helmet for each child who will
operate or ride on the bicycle; or
determines that each child who will
operate or ride on the bicycle has a helmet
(B) A person
who sells or leases a helmet for use under this
section may charge for the helmet.
Source: 1992 Code Section 16-8-41; Ord.
031204-13; Ord. 031211-11.
§ 12-2-36 PENALTY; ENFORCEMENT.
person commits an offense if the person performs an
act prohibited by this article or fails to perform an
act required by this article.
offense under this article is a Class C misdemeanor
punishable by a fine not to exceed:
$20 on a first conviction; and
$40 on a subsequent conviction.
municipal court may dismiss a charge against a person
for an offense under Section 12-2-31 (Helmet Required)
on receiving proof that the defendant acquired a
helmet for the child who was operating or riding a
bicycle in violation of Section 12-2-31 (Helmet
Required) on or before the 30th day after the citation
promote the use of helmets, the city council
encourages the municipal court to consider deferred
dispositions under Article 45.051 (Suspension of
Sentence and Deferral of Final Disposition) of the
Texas Code of Criminal Procedure where
Source: 1992 Code Sections 16-8-2 (A) and
(B), and 16-8-42; Ord. 031204-13; Ord. 031211-11.
§ 12-2-37 CIVIL ACTIONS.
The city council adopts this article to
encourage bicycle safety through the use of helmets
and through the promotion of educational efforts.
(B) The city
council does not intend this article to be used in a
manner to prejudice a person, child, or parent in a
civil action arising out of a bicycle accident.
The council encourages construction of this article
Minority kids got most
of the tickets that went to kids
- 1996-97: 78.26% of
under-16 tickets went to black & Hispanic
kids. Data below gathered by the League of
Bicycling Voters (LOBV).
*June & July tickets
were given by officers who didn't realize that the
ordinance wasn't supposed to be enforced until Aug.
Aug. 19, 1996 - Feb. 1, 1997
Violators were 12-52 years old
54.79% in their 20's
21.84% under 21
74.54% over 16 were white
78.26% of violators 16 and under were
Hispanic and black
Times tickets issued:
26.59% from 3-6pm
10.98% from 4-5pm
Tickets issued by:
121 APD (9 officers issuing 28%)
10 Park Police (5 officers issuing 19.5%)
14 officers (less than 11% of force) issued
33% of tickets within 5 blocks of UT…1/2
(16.5) on Guadalupe between 15-31st St.
- 1997-99: 92% of kid
tickets went to minority kids (10/97 - 1/99)
- 1999-02: (nobody studied
this period that we know of)
- 2002-06: Our
understanding is that police stopped enforcing the
ordinance and issued no more tickets, although the law is
still on the books
Yes, the police department said that most of the
no-helmet tickets given to kids were not given to minority kids.
The police just lied, plain and simple.
In 1997 when the LOBV publicized the fact the fact that
minority kids were bearing the brunt of the no-helmet tickets for kids,
the police lied and told the local paper that the tickets didn't
indicate the race of the person ticketed. Amazingly, the
Statesman was stupid enough to fall for this, and printed it as though
it were fact.
In 2006 when the City Council was considering reviving the
helmet law for adults, Councilmeber Martinez said that the police told
him that in recent years few minority kids had received no-helmet
tickets. What the police ailed to mention is that so far as we
know, police stopped enforcing the ordinance in 2002. The
points are that APD has never owned up to the fact that minority kids
got most of the no-helmet tickets issued to kids, and that if the law
is ever resurrected, we can expect minorities to suffer before, just as
they did last time.
As someone who was arrested and physically
abused by local police
for a minor traffic infraction, I know that police abuse of power is
all too real.