Motorcycling has been gaining in popularity for decades, as more and more people appreciate the fun, freedom, and other benefits of riding. Unfortunately, this popularity has also led to an increase in motorcycle crashes, injuries, and fatalities.
Nearly every state has passed a motorcycle helmet law to address these dangers, but these laws vary widely in terms of who they cover and what they require. In this article, we'll discuss what you need to know about helmet safety and helmet laws, and tell you the best ways to stay informed about the laws in the states where you ride.
Cars and trucks protect their occupants from collisions, but motorcyclists are much more exposed. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, someone traveling by motorcycle is, on average, more than 25 times more likely to die in an accident than someone making the same trip by car.
Motorcyclists can help reduce these dangers by wearing helmets. As the National Safety Council has pointed out, motorcycle helmets greatly increase a rider's chances of surviving an accident, and helmet use has saved tens of thousands of lives since the early 2000s. These safety benefits also translate into economic benefits. According to the NHTSA, in 2017 alone motorcycle helmets saved billions of dollars (in health care, insurance, and other costs) by protecting riders from death and serious injury.
Wearing a helmet has other financial and legal benefits for individual riders. Most states use a comparative negligence system for personal injury lawsuits, in which plaintiffs collect less money if they're found to be partially responsible for their own injuries. This means that, depending on the law in your state, your failure to wear a helmet could make it difficult or even impossible to bring a successful personal injury lawsuit. If you're injured because you weren't wearing a helmet, you may also find it difficult to collect an adequate insurance settlement, and wind up paying higher insurance premiums.
The benefits of wearing a helmet—both for riders and for society—have led nearly every state to implement some kind of motorcycle helmet law (as of 2023, Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire are the only exceptions). Specific legal requirements vary from state to state. Here are some questions to ask before you ride.
In many states, all motorcycle operators and passengers must wear helmets. But states often target their laws based on a person's age, riding experience, or insurance status.
Indiana, for instance, requires helmets for riders under the age of 18, or for anyone who has a learner's permit and not a full license. Kentucky has a similar law, requiring helmets for anyone under 21, anyone riding with only a learner's permit, and anyone who's had their license for less than one year.
Missouri is one of several states that combine an age requirement with an insurance requirement. Everyone 25 or younger must wear a helmet if they're operating a motorcycle in Missouri. But riders over 25 don't have to wear helmets as long as they have health insurance or vehicle insurance that will cover their injuries in the event of an accident.
Most states' helmet laws cover all motorcycle-type vehicles—including three-wheeled models and less-powerful two-wheeled cycles like mopeds and dirt bikes.
Some states, though, have different rules based on factors like a vehicle's engine size or maximum speed. In New York, for instance, you're not required to wear a helmet if your vehicle's top speed is 20 miles per hour or less.
The safest approach—both for your health and from a legal perspective—is to wear a helmet whenever you get on a motorcycle. But some states make exceptions to their helmet laws in certain circumstances. Idaho's helmet law doesn't apply on private property, and Louisiana is one of several states that allow riders to forego helmets when they participate in officially recognized parades or public exhibitions.
Many helmets—including ones that seem like they'd offer good protection—don't actually comply with state helmet laws. California and many other states require riders to wear helmets that comply with United States Department of Transportation safety standards. Rules like this help ensure that helmets fulfill their purpose of protecting riders from being seriously injured or killed in accidents.
You should also keep in mind that your state may have safety requirements that aren't included in its helmet law. Illinois, for instance, has no helmet law at all, but still requires riders to use eye protection. (See the sidebar for more details on state eye-protection laws.)
The worst-case outcome of not wearing a helmet, of course, is what might happen if you're in an accident. But states can also impose significant consequences on people who don't comply with the law. In South Dakota, for example, violating the helmet law (which applies to anyone under age 18) is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail or a fine of up to $500.
Keep in mind that states often hold operators responsible for the conduct of their passengers. South Dakota and Texas are just two of the states in which both the motorcycle operator and the passenger can be punished if the passenger doesn't wear a helmet. In Wisconsin, which like South Dakota requires helmets for anyone under 18, an operator who lets a passenger ignore the helmet law can be fined and have demerit points added to their license.
As we've discussed in this article, motorcycle helmet laws and other safety requirements vary significantly from state to state. If you have questions about how to ride safely and legally in your state or on a multi-state trip, you can consult guides compiled by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Governors Highway Safety Association. You can seek out the most up-to-date guidance by consulting directly with your state's highway safety office or department of motor vehicles.