All About Motorcycle Helmet Laws

Motorcycle Helmet Laws Jacoby & Meyers, LLP

It was the same battle that has been raging in Connecticut for the last 40 years. Only this time around, there was a twist. Instead of introducing a bill calling for all motorcycle riders to wear helmets, the state’s legislators opted to introduce a bill that only required riders under the age of 21 to don a helmet before taking to the open road.

The difference in bills from one year to the next had an impact.

“We see this as an issue about the age of majority,” explained a representative from the 900-member Connecticut Motorcycle Riders Association. He added that if the law only applies to people under the age of 21, the organization would not take a position on the bill. However, if the group detected an attempt to pass a universal helmet law that requires helmets for all riders, regardless of age, the association was ready to fight.

“If there was such compelling evidence that motorcycle helmet laws were so effective,” the representative noted, “we wouldn’t be here today—40 years later—still debating this issue.”

Aren’t helmets proven to protect riders from serious head injuries? If so, why are so many riders opposed to them? And how does the issue play out among the various states? If a motorcycle accident has caused harm to you or a loved one, contact an experienced motorcycle accident injury attorney to learn about your rights. Read on for more information.

Why Are Helmets Important?

Each year, U.S. motorcycle accidents kill more than 5,000 people and injure more than 85,000. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has reported that universal helmet laws would save more than 1,500 lives each year. The Government Accountability Office has reported that helmet use is the only effective strategy available for reducing deaths and serious injuries to motorcyclists involved in accidents. States without universal helmet laws see 10 times the motorcycle accident fatalities as those that require all riders to wear a helmet.

Each year, motorcycle accidents carry a direct economic impact of $12.9 billion and an estimated $66 billion in societal harm. These costs are disproportionately caused by fatalities and serious injuries. It is estimated that the use of motorcycle helmets is currently preventing $17 billion in societal harm, and another $8 billion could be saved if all motorcyclists wore helmets.

Consider the following impacts that states with universal helmet laws have reported since instituting or altering helmet laws:

  • When California passed its universal helmet law in 1992, the state reported that helmet usage jumped from 50 percent to 99 percent. Meanwhile, motorcycle accident fatalities dropped by 37 percent.
  • Nebraska saw a 22 percent decline in serious head injuries caused by motorcycle accidents after reinstating its universal helmet law in 1989.
  • In 1997, Texas repealed its universal helmet law, and instituted a partial law applying to riders under the age of 21. In the first year after the universal law was swapped out for a partial law, the state saw a 31 percent increase in motorcycle accident fatalities.
  • When Kentucky and Louisiana repealed their universal helmet laws in the late 1990s, they reported increases in motorcycle accident fatalities of 50 percent and 100 percent respectively.
  • In 2012, Michigan weakened its helmet law by exempting riders that were 21 and older who had at least $20,000 in medical insurance coverage. While the change did not cause a significant increase in deaths, it did result in a 22 percent increase in the average insurance payment for injuries to motorcyclists and led to more serious injuries and neurological interventions.

Why Do People Oppose Helmet Laws?

There are many arguments against requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets. Some of the more common arguments include:

  • The decision to wear helmets is a matter of educating the rider on the benefits of wearing a helmet, so they can make an informed choice to do so.
  • Forcing riders to wear helmets is infringing on their personal rights and freedoms.
  • Wearing a helmet is an insufficient method of protecting people from injury. Better protections include bolstering the skills of inexperienced riders and avoiding dangerous riding situations.
  • The percentage of injured riders depending on public money to treat their injuries is less than the percentage of the general population relying on publicly-provided health care.
  • Helmets can obstruct the motorcyclist’s peripheral view and can also blunt the rider’s ability to hear approaching danger.
  • Helmets, while protecting the head, can cause neck and spine injuries.
  • Helmets provide riders with a false sense of security, causing them to take risks when riding that they would not take if the helmet was off.

The Law in New Jersey

In New Jersey, all riders are required to wear a Department of Transportation-approved helmet. The helmet must be securely fitted to the rider’s head, must be equipped with a neck or chin strap, and must have reflective tape affixed to both sides so that motorists can more easily see the rider at night. The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office notes that an approved helmet allows the rider to see as far enough to the sides to detect a hazard and that, in a study of 900 motorcycle accident cases where 40 percent of the riders wore helmets, there was not a single case in which the helmet prevented the rider from spotting danger.

The Law in New York

New York also has a universal helmet law under which all motorcycle riders and their passengers are required to wear a Department of Transportation-approved helmet. Novelty helmets, the state’s Department of Health notes, do not meet these safety standards and do not provide adequate protection for the rider. The department adds that wearing an approved helmet is 37 percent effective in preventing fatal injuries to motorcycle riders, and 42 percent effective in preventing fatal injuries to passengers. Helmets are also required in the state when riding a moped that is capable of traveling at speeds of 20 miles per hour or more.

The Law in Connecticut

Connecticut, at the time of this writing, only requires helmets to be worn by riders and passengers under the age of 18. As indicated above, the state has had a lengthy history of debating who should and should not be required to wear a helmet. Connecticut had a universal helmet law until 1976, as the U.S. Department of Transportation was imposing economic sanctions—10 percent of the state’s federal funding for highway construction—against any state who refused to comply with the national helmet use standard.

The repeal of the universal law was based on the removal of that sanction and the general feeling that the state should not infringe on the rights of an individual by forcing them to wear a helmet. A partial helmet law was instituted in 1989, requiring helmets only for riders who are under 18.

Which States Have Them, and Which Don’t?

As you can see, helmet laws are now left to state legislators. Here is a look at which states have universal helmet laws, which have partial helmet laws, and which do not require helmets at all.

States With Universal Helmet Laws

  • Washington
  • Oregon
  • Nevada
  • California
  • Nebraska
  • Missouri
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Tennessee
  • Alabama
  • Georgia
  • Vermont
  • New York
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • Maryland
  • District of Columbia
  • West Virginia
  • Virginia
  • North Carolina

States With Partial Helmet Laws

  • Montana – Covers riders under 18
  • Idaho – Covers riders under 18
  • Wyoming – Covers riders under 18
  • Utah – Covers riders under 21
  • Colorado – Covers riders and passengers under 18
  • Arizona – Covers riders under 18
  • New Mexico – Covers riders under 18
  • North Dakota – Covers riders under 18
  • South Dakota – Covers riders under 18
  • Kansas – Covers riders under 18
  • Oklahoma – Covers riders under 18
  • Texas – Covers riders under 21
  • Minnesota – Covers riders under 18
  • Arkansas – Covers riders under 21
  • Wisconsin – Covers riders under 18
  • Michigan – Covers riders under 21
  • Indiana – Covers riders under 18
  • Kentucky – Covers riders under 21
  • Ohio – Covers riders under 18
  • Pennsylvania – Covers riders under 21
  • South Carolina – Covers riders under 21
  • Florida – Covers riders under 21
  • Maine – Covers riders under 18
  • Connecticut – Covers riders under 18
  • Rhode Island – Covers riders under 21
  • Alaska – Covers riders under 18
  • Hawaii – Covers riders under 18

States With No Helmet Requirements

  • Iowa
  • Illinois
  • New Hampshire

Why Would a State Repeal Its Laws?

The federal government has often tied funding to the passage of universal helmet laws, with the first instance of this occurring in 1967.

Here is a timeline of how the issue has evolved over more than half a century:

  • 1967: The federal government encouraged universal helmet laws within the states by tying these laws to the provision of certain safety and highway construction funds.
  • 1975: All but three states had universal helmet laws.
  • 1976: Congress revoked the U.S. Department of Transportation’s authority to withhold funding from states that were not complying with the universal helmet safety standard.
  • 1977: Texas amended its helmet law to apply only to riders under the age of 18. This amendment was quickly followed by a 35 percent increase in motorcycle fatalities.
  • 1978: Eight states repealed their helmet requirements entirely and 20 more weakened their laws by requiring only the youngest riders to use helmets when riding.
  • 1989: Nebraska required helmets for all riders for the first time since 1977. Texas reinstated its universal helmet law and saw an 11 percent decrease in motorcycle crashes resulting in serious injuries.
  • 1991: Congress again began creating incentives for states with universal helmet laws.
  • 1992: California passed its universal helmet law.
  • 1995: Congress again reversed itself on incentivizing states to pass helmet laws.
  • 2000: Florida weakened its universal helmet law to exempt riders over 21 who had at least $10,000 in medical insurance coverage. This action resulted in a 25 percent increase in motorcyclist fatalities in that state.

In the past 20 years, many states have weakened or strengthened their laws in accordance with public sentiment and federal policies. The bottom line: states will often pass laws based on incentives provided by the federal government, as well as when the economic burden and public safety issues justify a change in the law.

Some states have attempted to either repeal a universal helmet law or reinstate one for many years. In addition to Connecticut, at the time of this writing, Missouri lawmakers were also looking to change their helmet requirements for motorcyclists. However, unlike Connecticut, the Missouri lawmakers aren’t looking to strengthen their motorcycle helmet law, but to repeal it. They nearly passed a bill last year that would allow riders to forego a helmet provided they are over 18 and have health insurance coverage.

A similar bill was reintroduced by three Republicans on the Missouri House Transportation Committee in 2020, stating that repealing the law would provide adult riders with the freedom to make their own choices on the matter and would keep riders from other states from avoiding traveling to and through Missouri because of its helmet requirement.

One of the bill’s sponsors added that the current law is ineffective, as it only results in a fine of $25 for riding without a helmet and courts can’t issue a failure to appear warrant if the offender doesn’t pay the fine or appear in court. “If we have a law that we can’t really enforce,” he stated, “then let’s get rid of that law.” The state’s Department of Transportation director argued that repealing the law would take back positive progress that Missouri has made in reducing traffic deaths in recent years.

Helmets can protect you against serious head injuries if you’re in a motorcycle accident, and they’re required for all riders in New York and New Jersey. If you were injured in a motorcycle accident that resulted from someone else’s negligent or reckless actions, whether you wore a helmet or not, contact an experienced motorcycle accident lawyer to help you understand the legal process for seeking to recover your expenses through a personal injury lawsuit.

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