Motorcycle Helmet Laws

By | August 26, 2019 | Motorcycle Accidents

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a properly functioning helmet is the most important piece of safety equipment that a motorcyclist can have. Wearing a helmet reduces the risk of dying in a crash by 37 percent, and riding without a helmet increases your risk of suffering a traumatic brain injury by three times.

In spite of the increased risk of brain injuries and death, some riders still opt not to wear helmets, and some states, like Illinois, they don’t have to.

Here is a look at helmet laws across the nation and whether there is any reduction in death and brain injuries among motorcyclists in states with strict helmet laws.

Readers will want to pay close attention to the vast differences between helmet laws in Missouri and Illinois, because motorcyclists have many reasons to cross the Mississippi River that separates those states—but in doing so, you’ll want to ensure you comply with the respective laws that govern them.

One thing that doesn’t change from state to state—helmets save lives and lessen injuries no matter where you ride. Another constant: Juries do take into consideration if an injured person was wearing a helmet at the time of the crash. For more information speak to an experience motorcycle accident lawyer.

Helmet Laws: A Brief History

In 1967, the federal government began requiring states to pass universal helmet laws—which require the use of helmets by all riders—by tying the passage of these laws to highway safety and construction funds. All but three states complied with the mandate, and in 1976, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) planned to begin assessing penalties to those states. However, Congress revoked the federal authority to assess penalties for noncompliance, and many states repealed their helmet laws in response. Eight states opted to take away the requirement of helmet usage completely, while twenty more states weakened their laws so that the helmet requirement only applied to young riders.

In 1991, federal lawmakers again stepped in and began offering incentives to states with helmet laws, only to reverse course a few years later. Through the years and the various implementations and repeals of helmet laws, researchers have gathered a lot of data to prove that when states pass universal helmet laws, they see a decrease in deaths, injuries, and medical costs. When they repeal those laws, the death and injury rates, as well as the costs of medical care for injured individuals, increases.

Meanwhile, the states have left a patchwork of widely varying helmet laws and legislative activity.

After losing their 33-year-old son due to injuries sustained in a motorcycle crash, one couple embarked on a mission to change the motorcycle helmet laws in their state. In Wisconsin, where the couple lives and their son died, the law requires helmet use only for riders under the age of 18. However, the parents of the man who died claim that he would have had a better chance of survival if the law required helmet use for all riders and that, had the law required it, he would have been wearing one at the time of the accident.

With Wisconsin’s strong motorcycle-riding heritage and fierce push-back from a motorcycle riders’ organization, the couple admits that getting lawmakers to act is going to be a tough challenge. Even some of their son’s closest friends, while being sympathetic to the parents’ situation, disagree with attempts to change the law, stating that riders should choose whether to wear helmets.

States With Universal Helmet Laws

The following states have universal helmet laws, requiring all motorcycle riders to wear a DOT-approved helmet when riding on public roadways. According to 2017 data, 97 percent of motorcyclists in states with universal helmet laws were wearing helmets. In states without such laws, helmet use dropped to 48 percent. The following states require helmet use:

  • Alabama
  • California – When California its universal helmet law in 1992, it saw a 37 percent reduction in fatalities from motorcycle accidents.
  • District of Columbia
  • Georgia
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri – In July 2019, the Missouri governor vetoed a law that would have repealed helmet requirements for motorcyclists in that state. While the governor generally supported that part of the legislation, it was another provision of the omnibus transportation bill—one that would strip drivers of their licenses for failing to pay fines for minor traffic offenses—that he opposed. The proposed repeal of the helmet law would have still required riders under 18 to wear a helmet unless they could provide proof of medical insurance.
  • Nebraska – After reinstating its helmet law in 1989, Nebraska saw a 22 percent reduction in accident-related head injuries and a 38 percent reduction in acute medical hospital charges for injured motorcyclists.
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Oregon
  • Tennessee
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • West Virginia

Partial Helmet Laws: Protecting Young Riders

The following states require helmet usage for some riders, generally the youngest and most inexperienced riders. However, these states generally allow older riders to decide whether they wish to wear a helmet.

  • Alaska – Passengers of all ages, riders under the age of 18, and those operating with an instructional permit are required to wear a helmet.
  • Arizona – Riders 17 years old or younger must wear helmets.
  • Arkansas – If you’re under 20 years old, you must wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle.
  • Colorado – Riders and passengers 17 years old or younger must wear helmets.
  • Connecticut – Riders 17 years old or younger must wear helmets.
  • Delaware – Helmet usage is required for riders 18 years old or younger. All others must carry an approved helmet, though they’re not required to use it.
  • Florida – All riders under 21 must wear helmets. Those over 21 must wear helmets unless they provide proof of a medical insurance policy. After weakening its helmet law in 2000, the state saw a 25 percent increase in motorcycle accident death rates, and hospital admission rates for riders with head injuries increased by 82 percent in the first 30 months following the change in the law.
  • Hawaii – Riders 17 years old or younger must wear helmets.
  • Idaho – Riders 17 years old or younger must wear helmets.
  • Indiana – Riders 17 years old or younger must wear helmets.
  • Kansas – Riders 17 years old or younger must wear helmets.
  • Kentucky – If you’re under the age of 21 or you’re operating on an instructional permit, you must wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle.
  • Maine – Riders and passengers 17 years old or younger must wear helmets, as well as those operating on an instructional permit, driving within the first year of licensure, or riding as a passenger on a motorcycle operated by someone who is required to wear a helmet.
  • Michigan – All riders under age 21, and older riders who do not carry additional insurance, have not completed a motorcycle safety course, or haven’t had their motorcycle endorsement for at least two years are required to wear helmets. After weakening its helmet laws in 2012, the state saw a 22 percent increase in the average insurance payment for injuries to motorcyclists.
  • Minnesota – Riders 17 years old or younger or who are operating on an instructional permit must wear helmets.
  • Montana – Riders 17 years old or younger must wear helmets.
  • New Mexico – Riders 17 years old or younger must wear helmets.
  • North Dakota – Riders and passengers 17 years old or younger must wear helmets.
  • Ohio – Riders 17 years old or younger must wear helmets, as well as those operating on instructional permits, those driving within their first year of licensure, and all passengers of operators covered by the law.
  • Oklahoma – Riders 17 years old or younger must wear helmets.
  • Pennsylvania – Riders under 21 must wear helmets as well as all operators within the first two years of licensure, unless they’ve taken an approved safety course.
  • Rhode Island – Riders under the age of 21, as well as operators within the first year of licensure and all passengers, regardless of age, must wear helmets.
  • South Carolina – Riders under the age of 21 must wear helmets.
  • South Dakota – Riders 17 years old or younger must wear helmets.
  • Texas – Riders under the age of 21 must wear helmets, as well as those who have not successfully completed motorcycle operator and safety training, or who cannot show proof of a medical insurance policy. Peace officers cannot stop a motorcycle rider for the sole purpose of determining whether he or she has completed the requirements to ride without a helmet. In 1997, when Texas reduced the helmet requirements, it saw a 31 percent increase in operator fatalities within the first year.
  • Utah – Riders under 21 must wear helmets.
  • Wisconsin – Riders 17 years old or younger must wear helmets, as well as those operating on an instructional permit.
  • Wyoming – Riders 17 years old or younger must wear helmets.

No Helmet Required

The following states do not require helmet usage for any motorcyclists.

  • Illinois – The state repealed its universal helmet law in 1970.
  • Iowa – The state repealed its universal helmet law in 1976.
  • New Hampshire

Why Do People Oppose Helmet Laws?

States wishing to strengthen or pass laws that require helmet use are often met with opposition from riders and rider organizations. Why are the very people who are seemingly protected by helmet laws so against them? A 2010 op-ed published in the Chicago Tribune lists the following reasons:

  • Riders should be free to feel the sun on their scalps and the wind in their hair, regardless of the potential risks that come from not wearing a helmet.
  • Skull fractures are not contagious and the lack of helmets is not producing a public health issue, as it poses no risk to anyone other than the rider.
  • Data indicates that most people who die in motorcycle accidents would do so with or without a helmet.
  • Motorcyclist injuries are not the only injuries that result in rising health premiums for everyone, so it is not fair to state that mandating helmets would reduce healthcare and health insurance costs. Other harmful activities, such as smoking, drinking, eating unhealthy food, and having unprotected sex, are not prohibited by law, so why should riding without a helmet be prohibited?
  • Helmet laws violate an individual’s freedom of choice, even if that choice comes with collective costs.

A 2017 op-ed from the American Motorcyclist Association published in the Idaho Stateman offers the following additional arguments against helmet laws:

  • A helmet alone is inefficient in ensuring a motorcyclist’s safety. There are other, more effective measures, including requiring other drivers to take courses that teach how to prevent accidents with motorcycles.
  • Provisions requiring proof of additional medical insurance coverage if riding without a helmet are discriminatory against riders of lower incomes.
  • Mandatory helmet laws do nothing to reduce the number of motorcycle crashes.
  • Motorcyclists are as likely to hold private insurance as other road users and are less likely to use public funds to cover injuries sustained in crashes.

On the Flip Side…

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a big proponent of a federal universal helmet law and offers the following information as to why requiring all riders everywhere to wear a helmet is a good idea:

  • Helmets saved an estimated 1,859 lives in 2016, according to analysis by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). An additional 802 more lives could have been saved if riders had been wearing helmets at the time of their crashes.
  • Each year, the United States could save more than $1 billion in economic costs if all motorcyclists wore helmets.
  • A 2013 study by the NHTSA revealed that states without universal helmet laws saw 11 times more motorcyclist fatalities than those that require all riders to wear helmets.
  • If all of the 1,779 riders that died in crashes in 2013 were using helmets at the time of their accidents, 658 would have survived.
  • If all 138 passengers who died in these accidents were all wearing helmets at the time of their accidents, 57 would have survived.
  • States where helmets are only required for young and new riders don’t generally see the benefits of reduced injury and death rates, as such laws are difficult to enforce. While these states do see a reduction in fatalities of around 8 percent, that is far below the 22 to 33 percent reduction in motorcyclist fatalities enjoyed by states with universal helmet laws.
  • According to past crash statistics, almost half of all motorcyclists injured in crashes lack sufficient health care coverage to pay for their injuries, resulting in a reliance on public funds to pay for their long-term care.
  • Helmet users injured in accidents have a lowered injury severity score, mortality rate, and resource utilization than those without helmets.
  • There are 38 percent more traumatic brain injuries in young and inexperienced riders in states with partial helmet laws than there are in states with universal helmet laws.
  • Universal motorcycle helmet laws are easier to enforce during routine traffic patrols than partial laws, as the lack of a helmet is quickly observed and does not require the officer to determine the age of the driver.

Have you been injured in a motorcycle accident caused by someone else’s negligence? If so, contacting a motorcycle accident lawyer can help you understand your legal options.

About The Author

Zane T. Cagle

Zane T. Cagle is the founding president and lead trial attorney at The Cagle Law Firm. With a strong dedication to his clients, he has built a reputation for his tenacious representation in personal injury cases, ensuring each client's unique story is heard. Areas of Practice: Personal injury, motor vehicle accidents, wrongful death. Bar Admissions: Supreme Court of Missouri, Illinois & Kentucky. Superior Court of U.S. Virgin Islands Education: Washington University School of Law. Awards: Super Lawyers, Top 40 Under 40 by The National Trial Lawyers Association, 10 Best in Missouri for Customer Satisfaction.

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