How Important are State Motorcycle Helmet Laws?

There is no lack of research on the fact that helmets save lives (and skin) when they are fitted and worn correctly.

In the late 1960s, the federal government passed legislation which tied federal highway funding with seatbelt and helmet laws: states which didn’t make these safety measures mandatory would lose a portion of their highway funding.  After a debate about whether helmets should be within the purview of the state or federal government, the government backed off of this legislation and stopped penalizing noncompliance with the federal law.  As with seatbelt and, more recently, distracted driving laws, the federal government decided to leave the lawmaking to the individual states.

Currently, 47 states have some form of a helmet law.  Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire have no mandatory helmet law in place.  Of those 47 states, only 19 require helmets for all riders.  The remaining 28 states have laws for specific classes of rider, depending on factors like age, experience, or insurance coverage. Additionally, some individual localities have enacted their own helmet laws.

Since the initial federal helmet law, a debate has been raging about whether anyone should be enacting helmet laws.  The crux of the argument is the personal freedoms of the riders: a vocal population believes that the ability to choose one’s own level of risk is a fundamental right, which should not be infringed upon by the state. Although no side is advocating for helmet non-use, the question is whether it should be mandatory or a personal choice.  Each side’s arguments are grounded in deeply-held ideals, and for every point, there is a counterpoint.

Helmets should be required because they save lives.

Neither side is disputing that helmets are beneficial in the event of a motorcycle accident.  The additional protection afforded by a helmet may mean the difference between a few bruises or death.  Given the overwhelming data suggesting that helmets, when worn properly fitted and sized, save lives, it seems like it would be an easy argument to make that helmets should be required for all motorists.

The counterpoint to this argument does not refute any of the data.  Rather, opponents of mandatory helmet laws feel that the safety data is irrelevant; what matters is the ability of the government to tell you what to do.  Because the choice to wear a helmet ultimately affects only the wearer, they argue, it should be a personal choice, not something mandated by the government.

Helmets should not be required because there are better ways to avoid fatalities.

Opponents of mandatory helmet laws acknowledge that a helmet may be helpful in a crash; however, they further advocate for education that avoids crashes altogether.  Rather than require that riders wear helmets, they suggest that everyone on the road be better educated on how to avoid crashes.  These opponents push for education of both motorcyclists and car drivers, since most accidents involve both a car and a motorcycle.  A more educated driver base will decrease the risk of avoidable accidents.

Advocates for mandatory helmet laws point out that although there is benefit to better educating all users of the road, education and helmet laws are not mutually exclusive.  People can be knowledgeable about safety issues and wear a helmet.

What Do Insurers Think of Helmet Laws?

Similar to the argument for limiting soda intake or restricting cigarette availability, proponents of helmet laws believe that the increased injury to bikers costs the population more because of insurance payments.  The argument runs that if individuals (with or without insurance) are engaged in unnecessarily risky behavior, it costs everyone when their medical bills cause insurance premiums to rise or when uninsured bikers need treatment. A corollary argument states that the cost of medical personnel who are required to treat a crash victim without a helmet is an unnecessary one.

The flaw with this argument, opponents argue, is that there is no evidence to suggest that the burden is that great.  Motor vehicle crashes are responsible for only a small percent of total health insurance claims, and of that small percent, an even smaller percent is due to unhelmeted motorcyclists. This may be because those who are involved in motorcycle crashes without helmets end up dead instead of injured, so the burden on the health insurance industry is fairly low.

Is Wearing a Helmet ‘Your Choice’?

As with anything else, the “personal freedom” argument must be weighed against the “public good” argument.  No organization advocates for helmet non-use; the argument is against mandatory helmet laws.  Personal freedom means the right to make decisions that others feel are risky or unnecessarily dangerous.  Government intrusion in this arena, opponents argue, may erode our freedom in other arenas.  The big-picture issue is one of personal choice, not paternalistic regulations that infringe on one’s decisions.

This argument is fairly unimpugnable; however, the family and friends of an individual who chooses not to wear a helmet may argue that there are other victims if a biker is badly injured.  As it stands, most states allow riders to choose if they are over a certain age, have a certain level of experience, or carry a certain amount of personal injury insurance.

Below is a sampling of the motorcycle helmet laws in various states; be sure to check on the relevant statutes for any state or locality you may be riding through before you head there.  Or better yet, just put on a helmet.

Helmet Laws by State

California Helmet Laws

All California motorcyclists must wear helmets that comport with the USDOT standards.  The price of this ticket is between $10 and $250 depending on a series of complex legal issues.  Just wear a helmet.

Florida Helmet Laws

Florida requires bikers to wear eye protection no matter what (unless they’re in an enclosed sidecar).  Helmets are generally required; however, anyone over the age of 16 driving a motorcycle with a motor with a displacement of less than 50ccs is not required to wear a helmet.  Additionally, a driver over 21 who has medical payment insurance in excess of $10,000 does not have to wear a helmet.  The fine for not wearing a helmet is $35.

Illinois Helmet Laws

No rider in Illinois is required to wear a helmet; however, state law does require that all riders wear eye protection which covers the front and sides of the face, or have a windshield attached to their motorcycle.

Maryland Helmet Laws

Maryland motorcyclists must wear a helmet, as well as eye protection or a windshield.  Both must conform to the standards set forth by Maryland’s Administration of Transportation.   A ticket can cost you up to $500.

Texas Helmet Laws

In Texas, most riders are required to wear a helmet which meet’s the state’s Department of Public Safety’s standards.  However, riders who are over 21, have passed a motorcycle operator training course, and who maintain medical payment insurance for at least $10,000 may ride without a helmet.  An officer can not stop a helmet-less biker to confirm that he has met these requirements. A violation costs between $10 and $50.

Virginia Helmet Laws

Virginia helmets must meet the standards of one of the three institutions (USDOT, Snell, or ANSI).  Operators and passengers must wear helmets, as well as a face shield and eye protection, unless the bike is equipped with some sort of windshield.  A ticket for noncompliance can cost up to $200.

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