Do you have to put on that old helmet to go for a ride? Take a comprehensive look at helmet laws for each state in the U.S.
United States culture places a high value on personal freedom. That freedom sometimes comes into conflict with the legitimate goal of keeping people safe.
As with laws regarding cell phone use by drivers, another legal area where this conflict can be observed is state helmet laws affecting people who use both motorcycles and bicycles.
For example, citizens of New Hampshire had a significant debate over the issue of a motorcycle helmet law in 2020. While proponents of the proposed law argued it would help keep the public safe, others argued that wearing one was a personal choice that should not be dictated by the state. The bill did not become law, and helmets are still not required in New Hampshire.
Though New Hampshire is in the minority of states on this issue, the tension between public safety and personal freedom regarding helmet laws is one that has been addressed in every state.
The effectiveness of helmets cannot seriously be challenged, as the Centers for Disease Control have found that universal helmet laws are the single most effective way for states to save both lives and money.
However, even among states that have adopted helmet laws, they don’t all universally require head protection. And many states make distinctions between helmets for motorcycle riders and helmets for bicyclists, recognizing the different level of risk associated with each activity.
This article will examine the laws of U.S. states and territories regarding protective headgear for motorcyclists, bicyclists, and their passengers. It will also examine the various penalties and enforcement mechanisms of the different jurisdictions.
List of Helmet Laws by State
There is no federal helmet law. Although the federal government eventually found a way to force states to raise the drinking age to 21, they were not able to do this for helmets. In 1967, the United States Department of Transportation attempted to force the states to pass helmet laws, but Congress put a stop to those efforts in 1976.
Despite this disparity, most states have enacted some form of helmet law. Some states, like Florida, enacted universal helmet laws only to later reject them as unconstitutional. (Florida later enacted less comprehensive helmet laws, as shown in the table below.)
In the table below, you’ll find a summary of the specific laws for motorcycles (according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) and bicycles (according to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute).
|State||Statewide Age-Based Bicycle Helmet Law||Universal Motorcycle Helmet Law||Age-Based Motorcycle Helmet Law|
|Alabama||Yes (under 16)||Yes||No|
|Alaska||No (local laws only)||No||Yes (under 18)|
|Arizona||No (local laws only)||No||Yes (under 18)|
|Arkansas||No||No||Yes (under 21)|
|California||Yes (passengers under 5 and riders under 18)||Yes||No|
|Colorado||No||No||Yes (under 18)|
|Connecticut||Yes (under 16)||No||Yes (under 18)|
|Delaware||Yes (under 18)||No||Yes (under 19)|
|D.C.||Yes (under 16)||Yes||No|
|Florida||Yes (under 16)||No||Yes (under 21)|
|Georgia||Yes (under 16)||Yes||No|
|Hawaii||Yes (under 16)||No||Yes (under 18)|
|Idaho||No||No||Yes (under 18)|
|Illinois||No (local laws only)||No||No|
|Indiana||No||No||Yes (under 18)|
|Kansas||No (local laws only)||No||Yes (under 18)|
|Kentucky||No (local laws only)||No||Yes (under 21)|
|Louisiana||Yes (under 12)||Yes||No|
|Maine||Yes (under 16)||No||Yes (under 18)|
|Maryland||Yes (under 16)||Yes||No|
|Massachusetts||Yes (passenger under 5 and riders under 17)||Yes||No|
|Michigan||No (local laws only)||No||Yes (under 21)|
|Minnesota||No||No||Yes (under 18)|
|Mississippi||No (local laws only)||Yes||No|
|Missouri||No (local laws only)||No||Yes (under 26)|
|Montana||No (local laws only)||No||Yes (under 18)|
|Nevada||No (local laws only)||Yes||No|
|New Hampshire||Yes (under 16)||No||No|
|New Jersey||Yes (under 17)||Yes||No|
|New Mexico||Yes (under 18)||No||Yes (under 18)|
|New York||Yes (passengers under 5 and riders under 14)||Yes||No|
|North Carolina||Yes (under 16)||Yes||No|
|North Dakota||No||No||Yes (under 18)|
|Ohio||No (local laws only)||No||Yes (under 18)|
|Oklahoma||No (local laws only)||No||Yes (under 18)|
|Oregon||Yes (under 16)||Yes||No|
|Pennsylvania||Yes (under 12)||No||Yes (under 21)|
|Rhode Island||Yes (under 16)||No||Yes (under 21)|
|South Carolina||No||No||Yes (under 21)|
|South Dakota||No||No||Yes (under 18)|
|Tennessee||Yes (under 16)||Yes||No|
|Texas||No (local laws only)||No||Yes (under 21)|
|Utah||No||No||Yes (under 21)|
|Virginia||No (local laws only)||Yes||No|
|Washington||No (local laws only)||Yes||No|
|West Virginia||Yes (under 15)||Yes||No|
|Wisconsin||No (local laws only||No||Yes (under 18)|
|Wyoming||No||No||Yes (under 18)|
As you can see from this list, each of the states weighs the balance between freedom and safety very differently. Keep in mind that if you ride a bicycle or motorcycle between two or more states, you will need to be prepared to follow the most restrictive state’s law.
State Penalties for Failing To Follow Law
Just as state laws vary significantly based on the requirements for helmets, so too do they differ on penalties for violations of their respective laws. For example, the California penalty for failing to wear a helmet ranges from $100 for a first offense to $250 for a third offense. Kentucky, on the other hand, can have fines as low as $20 or as high as $500, depending on circumstances.
Generally speaking, because these laws are designed to protect public safety, the amount of the fine will be based on the seriousness of the rule infraction.
For example, it’s likely that a minor’s failure to wear a helmet on a motorcycle would not be treated the same way if that minor was merely riding a bicycle (despite the fact that bicycle accidents can be serious and sometimes fatal).
You should also keep in mind that different states apply laws differently to categories of vehicles. For example, California’s law does not make distinctions between electric bicycles and motorcycles. Kentucky’s helmet law, though, does not cover mopeds with a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour.
It’s vital to consider exactly what you’re planning on driving as well as where you’re driving it when trying to determine which laws apply to your behavior.
Know Your Rights and Stay Safe
Though you may object to helmet laws on the basis of personal freedom, it’s important to understand why these laws exist. As indicated by the CDC, one of the most important things our states can do to preserve public health and save our money is implement and enforce helmet laws.
While wearing helmets may be inconvenient, injury or death resulting from a motorcycle accident can be far worse. Also, given the relatively small burden of wearing a helmet compared with the consequences of not wearing one, it makes sense to take precautions to protect yourself and your family.
If you or a loved one have been injured as a result of a motorcycle accident, you should take action to protect your rights. Contact a qualified personal injury attorney in your state for a free consultation and case evaluation.
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