Motorcycle Helmet Laws: The Facts, What Can be Done to Jump-Start Helmet Use, and Ways to Cap the Damages


States first enacted universal motorcycle helmet laws in 1966, and by 1975 forty-seven states and the District of Columbia had such laws. The laws were enacted by the states in order for those states to receive federal highway construction funds, which were contingent on the enactment of helmet laws. These incentives were withdrawn and motorcycle enthusiasts, organized in groups, successfully lobbied to have these state laws repealed. Currently only twenty states require helmets for all motorcycle riders while the remaining states do not require helmets or have partial laws usually requiring helmets for riders less than eighteen years of age.

Medical studies have overwhelmingly shown an increased risk of both morbidity and mortality for non-helmeted motorcycle riders as opposed to helmeted riders. Further studies have demonstrated the increased cost to society associated with the elevated morbidity and mortality for non-helmeted riders. Although the medical literature and the cost analysis studies show universal helmet laws are in the best interest of the individual rider and society as a whole, motorcycle enthusiasts have fiercely lobbied against universal helmet laws proclaiming a right of individual choice. The motorcyclists have successfully organized and exerted significant influence over state legislatures in defeating universal helmet laws. Because society bears the burden of the increased costs associated with injuries and deaths of non-helmeted riders, the individual rider’s freedom of choice may have to be curtailed.

Increased education of the motorcycle enthusiasts and the public along with a concerted, directed and organized effort by health care organizations will be necessary to enact universal helmet laws. Other measures such as increased insurance requirements and the use of a helmet defense by defendants to allow for the mitigation of damages may help encourage the use of helmets.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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