During an accident, bikers are more prone to serious and catastrophic injuries than other drivers, but that’s no surprise: Unlike drivers in four-wheel vehicles or tractor-trailer rigs, motorcyclists aren’t surrounded by a protective metal box. They have no seat belts, air bags, or steel reinforcement bars. Bikers also have visibility issues that make them difficult to see during low light conditions and heavy traffic. Other motorists may create safety problems for bikers. They can disregard their right of way, cut them off in traffic, misjudge their speed, and cause serious accidents.
Bikers rely on padded leather or Kevlar suits to protect their bodies and helmets to protect their heads. National universal helmet laws were an idea meant to protect bikers from injury. When universal helmet laws came close to approval nationwide, however, state legislators began fighting back. Many state helmet laws are now watered down, and compulsory only for the youngest riders.
Helmets are a critical resource for preventing motorcyclists’ brain injuries. Physicians and national safety agencies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree that helmets reduce motorcyclists’ risk of catastrophic injury and death. Still, states led the pushback against laws that made them mandatory.
Universal motorcycle helmet laws have a unique history. In a way, they reflect the traditional American idea of biker independence and freedom on the road. In 1967 the Federal government initiated a program that attempted to make helmet use compulsory. They tied federal highway funds to each state’s passage of motorcycle helmet laws. By the early 70s, the threat of lost federal funding had motivated nearly every state to enact a universal helmet law. The laws required every motorcycle riders to wear a helmet.
As the Governer’s Highway Safety Association’s Motorcycle page explains, at one point, 47 states had universal helmet laws. The District of Columbia and U.S. territories Puerto Rico, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands had universal motorcycle laws as well. By the mid-70s, states began to rebel against the compulsory laws. They convinced Congress to sever the tie between helmets and federal highway funds and states began repealing their universal helmet laws. While some states eventually reinstated universal laws, most diluted them to include only the youngest and most inexperienced riders and their passengers.
All but three states have a mandatory helmet requirement. Most laws started out as applicable to every rider. Once freed from mandatory federal requirements, each state handled them in a different way. Alabama and Massachusetts were two of the first states to comply with the original federal guidelines. Both passed universal helmet laws in 1967. They never modified or repealed them, and they remain in effect today.
Other states that originally implemented universal laws began modifying them over the years. Louisiana implemented a universal law in 1968. In 1976 they replaced the original law with an age-based law. They’ve since modified that statute twice and eventually reinstated the original universal statute in 2004. As of 2019, 19 states and the District of Columbia have universal helmet laws in place. 28 states have age-based helmet laws. Three states have no helmet law.
Three states—Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire—have no helmet laws at all.
Nineteen states and three U.S. territories currently have laws that require all drivers to wear safety helmets—Alabama, California, District of Columbia, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and also Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands
Twenty-eight states have age-based helmet laws, and 17 and younger is the most common age range for mandatory helmet use. Some states further refine their motorcycle helmet laws with safety training and/or medical insurance requirements. Michigan, Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania have different versions of an age 21 cutoff. Age 21 requirements are based on a rider’s license years, safety education, and/or medical insurance limit. In some states, passengers riding with bikers who require helmets must also wear helmets. The descriptions next to each state in the list below explain who must wear a helmet.
When states pass helmet laws, motorcyclist compliance rates rise. The NHTSA Safety Facts publication Motorcycle Helmet Use-2017 confirms this trend with these key facts:
Some motorcyclists wear helmets in universal law states because they want to be safe. Others do it because they don’t want to break the law. The fines for noncompliance are relatively low. For example, a first offense fine is $100 in Mississippi and only $50 in Louisana. As the fines for noncompliance are traditionally low in most states, they’re neither a factor that motivates compliance nor prevents noncompliance.
Motorcycle injury statistics demonstrate a connection between motorcycle helmets and rider safety. When a CDC study reviewed years of data related to universal motorcycle helmet laws, they reached several interesting conclusions:
In 2017, the CDC documented 213,015 motorcycle accident injuries nationwide. Data compiled by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows that 5,172 motorcyclists died in accidents during 2017. The IIHS explains that the numbers demonstrate a reversal of a previous downward trend. Biker fatalities began declining in the 80s but increased beginning in 1998. Catastrophic biker accident injuries are so common, the NHTSA found that a motorcyclist is 28 times more likely to die in an accident than drivers in other vehicles.
The potential for serious brain injury is a primary reason why doctors and national safety agencies recommend that bikers wear DOT-compliant motorcycle helmets. When a biker is involved in an accident, helmets have been proven to protect their heads and help prevent brain injuries. Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems data explains that vehicle accidents, including motorcycle crashes, caused 51 percent of the 16,495 brain injuries in their database.
Brain injuries require immediate intervention to minimize the damage but treatment doesn’t eliminate the condition. Brain injury patients undergo extended hospital stays and lengthy recoveries. They incur high medical and therapy costs and endure emotional, cognitive, and physical conditions that often last a lifetime:
That’s a difficult question to answer. Most formal helmet research focuses on the statistics, injuries, recovery, and economic losses that occur when a motorcyclist doesn’t wear a helmet. Of course, there’s more to a noncompliance dynamic than facts and figure. To understand why some motorcycle riders refuse to comply with laws designed to keep them safe, you must find out what a biker has to say.
The Motorcyclists of Reddit biker forum shares thoughts from bikers who are willing to explain their anti-helmet sentiment. When one member asked the question, “Why don’t you all wear helmets,” bikers responded with these and other more colorful answers.
Despite their history of rejection, helmets are an important safety accessory. They’ve also become a way for motorcyclists to show off their individuality. Many helmets are sleek and aerodynamic to minimize drag. One manufacturer created a functional style. It includes a solar-powered LCD visor that tints automatically with changes in sunlight. Bikers who avoid helmets because of heat issues can keep cool with a helmet air conditioner. New colorful helmets heighten biker visibility. Darth Vader, Spiderman, or Halo-inspired styles make them fun to wear. Of course, the most important helmet feature is DOT certification.
There’s nothing wrong with a trendy helmet as long as it’s certified safe by the Department of Transportation. DOT Certification means a helmet meets DOT Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 218. Helmets that meet this standard weigh approximately three pounds. They have durable chinstraps and a thick foam lining for cushioning and added protection. They’re designed to meet stringent FMV standards so they can keep bikers safe.
Whether or not you choose to wear a motorcycle helmet, you still have legal rights. If you’ve been seriously injured in a motorcycle accident, you need an experienced law firm to protect you. At Sibley Dolman Accident Injury Lawyers, we’ve recovered millions for our injured clients. Let us see if we can help you.
Call us at 833-552-7274 (833-55-CRASH) or complete our contact form at Sibley Dolman Accident Injury Lawyers, LLP, online. We’ll schedule a free appointment to discuss your case and determine if we can help you.
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