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Traffic Laws

Austin & Texas (summary)

Austin (detailed)

Texas, Bikes (detailed)

Texas, Motorists (detailed)

Helmet law (Austin)

Helmet laws (why they're bad)

Cyclists' right to the road handout

Austin Helmet Law

This page is about the Austin law and helmet laws in general.
We have a
separate page about statewide (TX) helmet laws.

Summary

There is no helmet law for adults in Austin.

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 helmet law.
  • 1997: As a result of public outcry, he Council amended the law to apply only to minors (17 and under).
  • 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 law

Doug 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 also unsuccessful.

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 own presentation.

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.


Text of the 1996 law

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 laws on bicycles (Mac users must turn JavaScript off 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.
     (A)     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.

     (B)     Except 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.

     (C)     Under this section, a helmet must:

          (1)     be properly fitted and securely fastened to the child's head with the straps securely tightened;

          (2)     not be structurally damaged; and

          (3)     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 helmet.

Source:  1992 Code Sections 16-8-1 and 16-8-40; Ord. 031204-13; Ord. 031211-11.

12-2-32  APPROVAL OF STANDARDS.

     (A)     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 EXEMPTION.

     (A)     A 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 statement:

          (1)     from a licensed physician that states the child's health condition and explains why the condition prevents the child from wearing a helmet; and

          (2)     that is approved by the Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services Department.

     (C)     The city manager shall establish procedures to implement this section.

Source:  1992 Code Section 16-8-45; Ord. 031204-13; Ord. 031211-11.

12-2-34  SALE OF A BICYCLE.

     (A)     A 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.

     (B)     The 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.

     (A)     A person may not lease a bicycle for use by a child unless the person:

          (1)     provides a helmet for each child who will operate or ride on the bicycle; or

          (2)     determines that each child who will operate or ride on the bicycle has a helmet available.

     (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.

     (A)     A person commits an offense if the person performs an act prohibited by this article or fails to perform an act required by this article.

     (B)     An offense under this article is a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine not to exceed:

          (1)     $20 on a first conviction; and

          (2)     $40 on a subsequent conviction.

     (C)     The 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 was issued.

     (D)     To 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 appropriate.

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. 

     (A)     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 accordingly.

Source:  1992 Code Section 16-8-44; Ord. 031204-13; Ord. 031211-11.

 

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).

    Aug. 19, 1996 - Feb. 1, 1997
    June: 1*
    July: 1*
    August: 70
    September: 118
    October: 177
    November: 74
    December: 20
    January: 65
    Total: 536

    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

    15.22% 10pm-midnight

    9.63% midnight-3am

    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 47+%

    33% of tickets within 5 blocks of UT…1/2 (16.5) on Guadalupe between 15-31st St.

    *June & July tickets were given by officers who didn't realize that the ordinance wasn't supposed to be enforced until Aug. 19

  • 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.




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