Helmet use requirements

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Helmet use requirements legally compel motorcycle or bicycle riders to wear established forms of head protection. Helmet use requirements typically fall into two categories: universal helmet laws, which impose a blanket requirement for motorcycle or other vehicle operators to wear helmets, and partial helmet laws, which only require riders to wear helmets in certain circumstances--e.g., only those below a certain age and/or without sufficient health insurance. Helmet use requirements are typically enforced via police citation with a corresponding fine. In some cases, helmet use requirements may also apply to bicycle or low-power cycle operators, although those requirements are more often tied to an age limit (e.g., that persons under the age of 21 must wear a helmet) or to a license or training program. In the U.S., helmet use restrictions may vary based on state, county or city. As of October 2016, 19 states and the District of Columbia had a universal helmet law, 28 states had a partial helmet law, and 3 states (New Hampshire, Iowa, and Illinois) had no helmet law. [1]



Conceptual Example

A state government has noticed an uptick in deaths caused by motorcycle accidents. In order to address this problem, the state takes steps to pass legislation in order to implement an across the board helmet use requirement for motorcyclists, relying on police officers to enforce the law by pulling over violators and issuing citations. After implementing the requirement, the jurisdiction observes a decline in motorcycle head injury and fatality rates.

Specific Example

The Commonwealth of Virginia has been a “universal helmet law” state since 1970. The applicable section (46.2 910) of the Code of Virginia has been amended in 1982, 1989, 1996, 1998, and 2014. The law continues to require all motorcycle operators and passengers to wear a helmet that meets certain safety regulations (as approved by the Snell Memorial Foundation, the American National Standards Institute, Inc., or the federal Department of Transportation). Failure to comply with this law is considered a class 4 misdemeanor and is punishable by up to a $250 fine. [2]



Tradeoffs of implementing this policy may include:

  1. Decreased bicycle or motorcycle ridership due to new helmet requirements if the rider does not yet own a helmet
  2. Increased cost of ridership due to the added requirement to purchase a helmet
  3. Increased government expenditure if helmet use requirement coincides with a free helmet program
  4. Decreased sense of liberty for riders who may oppose additional safety requirements
  5. Increased insurance penalties if a rider ignores the helmet requirement and a collision occurs
  6. Increased police presence on roadways with additional stops for ticketing
Compatibility Assessment

Compatibility Assessment.png

If answered yes, the following questions indicate superior conditions under which the policy is more likely to be appropriate:

  1. Have there been a material rate of fatalities from head trauma in motorcycle- or bicycle-related crashes in the past year?
  2. Do a meaningful number of individuals in the jurisdiction use bicycles or motorcycles for transportation?
  3. Among bicycle or motorcycle riders, do a significant share of riders choose not to wear helmets?
  4. Would a requirement for riders to wear helmets be likely to experience significant compliance with limited enforcement costs?
  5. Would many of the injuries currently being suffered by riders be prevented by the use of helmets?
  6. Have previous attempts at increasing safety measures outweighed the public’s perception of the freedom of choice with regards to helmets?



  1. Should the helmet use requirements be limited to certain individuals or universally applied?
    1. A universal helmet law would encompass all riders at all ages, with any type of insurance. Currently, 39% of states have universal helmet laws, 55% have partial helmet laws and 6% have no helmet requirements. Each state or municipality deciding whether or not to implement the policy on the universal level should consider that helmets have been proven to save lives at all ages. A partial helmet law would only require individuals who meet certain criteria to wear a helmet. If a jurisdiction opts not to implement this policy on the universal level, the following questions will need to be answered when determining how to implement this policy.
  2. Until what age should riders be required to wear a helmet?
    1. Several studies have proven that helmet requirements save lives regardless of age, so any age requirement would be based on factors outside of safety.
    2. Several key considerations include: at what age does the public consider an individual old enough to make decisions about risky behavior? Or, at what age do most other safety regulations apply? Consistency with other state or regional policies (e.g., applying the requirement until an individual is considered to legally be an adult) may help facilitate compliance.
  3. What insurance requirements, if any, should determine whether or not someone is required to wear a helmet?
    1. Some jurisdictions implement partial helmet laws by only requiring those who are uninsured or have less than a certain monetary coverage amount (e.g.. $10,000) to wear a helmet on the theory that such individuals would otherwise be socializing the medical costs of an otherwise risky behavior.
  4. What will be the penalty for failing to comply with the helmet use requirements and how will compliance be enforced?
    1. Typically, fines range from $5 in Montana to up to $1,000 in Georgia. Possible jail time is less widely implemented among 14 states in the U.S., with potential maximum sentences ranging from 10 days in Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and West Virginia to 12 months in Georgia. [3]
  5. What provisions, if any, will be made to facilitate the use of helmets by bicyclists?
    1. Implementation of this policy could include a program to aid those who do not have access to a nearby supplier of helmets or are unable to purchase a helmet.
    2. In addition, driver education and licensing programs should be updated to include new motorcycle helmet regulation information.



  • For governance level(s): State or Provincial. In the U.S., helmet use requirements are typically applied via statewide legislation. In 1967, states were obligated to have helmet requirements in order to be eligible for some federal highway construction funds. Nearly all states passed universal helmet requirements at that time. Since the federal government eased such funding requirements in 1970, many states have scaled back their helmet use requirements.




  • Government Agencies - Transportation. Assumption: Helmet requirements lower the number and frequency of fatal motorcycle crashes and the costs of injuries due to collisions. [4]
  • Advocates - Public Safety. Assumption: Public safety advocates argue that requiring helmets will decrease the number of deaths due to collisions and increase awareness about the risk of brain and spinal cord injuries. [5]
  • Advocates - Bicycle Safety. Assumption: Although these requirements are typically geared toward motorcyclists, bicycle safety advocates acknowledge the need to better protect user non-automobile transportation methods.
  • Associations - Bicycle Manufacturers. Assumption: A helmet requirement would increase demand for motorcycle and bicycle products.



  • Associations - Motorcycle Manufacturers. Assumption: Sales could decrease when those who oppose the requirement will choose not to ride or purchase motorcycles.
  • Constituent Groups - Biker Groups. Assumption: Biker “gangs” enjoy a certain riding experience and fiercely believe in the freedom to take their own risks – helmet use is “a personal choice”. [6]
  • Advocates - Libertarians. Assumption: Several freedom of choice advocates claim that educational programs provide the safety tips that riders need on the road. Few studies have supported this claim. [7]






  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
  2. Code of Virginia 46.2 910, http://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title46.2/chapter8/section46.2-910/
  3. National Highway Traffic Safety Association, http://www.smarter-usa.org/documents/NHTSA-states-chart-motorcycle-safety-laws.pdf
  4. NHTSA, Estimating Lives and Costs Saved by Motorcycle Helmets With Updated Economic Cost Information https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812206
  5. CDC, Motorcycle Safety: How to Save Lives and Money http://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/pdf/mc/motorcyclesafetyguide-a.pdf
  6. AMA, Position in Support of Voluntary Helmet Use. http://americanmotorcyclist.com/About-The-AMA/voluntary-helmet-use-1
  7. AMA, Position in Support of Voluntary Helmet Use. http://americanmotorcyclist.com/About-The-AMA/voluntary-helmet-use-1
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