Many states have enacted laws requiring helmets on motorcycle riders. Some require helmets for all riders; others require helmets only for riders under a certain age. Some states have also enacted mandatory bicycle helmet laws, though only for younger riders.
For a motorcycle or bicycle rider, a claim for injuries after an accident may be affected by whether or not the rider was in compliance with applicable helmet laws at the time of the crash. In some cases it depends on your type of injury. If you suffered injuries to your head or neck, then whether you were wearing a helmet is very important.
This article looks at a number of possible scenarios involving helmet laws and injuries in a motorcycle or bicycle crash, and how an injury claim might be affected.
If you were wearing a helmet and did not suffer head or neck injuries, the helmet has no legal significance—in other words, even if you had one on, your ability to collect on your claim is not helped. Even so, wearing a helmet may be worth mentioning during your claim, because it paints you as a responsible person.
If you were wearing a helmet and still suffered head or neck injuries, the helmet is very important to your claim. It shows that you were not "comparatively negligent," at least as to this aspect of your claim. That is, it shows that your injuries were not made worse by your own carelessness. And it shows how much worse the injury might have been—and therefore how dangerous the other driver's conduct was—had you not been wearing a helmet.
If you suffered injuries but did not injure your head or neck, the fact that you were not wearing a helmet is legally meaningless, because that fact did not lead to your "damages." In other words, you would have suffered these injuries whether or not you had a helmet. This is true even if the law in your state requires you to wear a helmet.
If you were not wearing a helmet and you suffered head or neck injuries, you may face difficult opposition in your claim even if the law in your state does not require you to wear a helmet. That is because helmets are known to significantly reduce or prevent head and neck injuries. So, your failure to wear a helmet can amount to a kind of "comparative negligence" on your part.
Bicyclists may still be able to make a successful claim in these circumstances. The protection afforded by bicycle helmets is not as obvious or well documented as it is for motorcyclists. As a result, helmets are not required for adult bicyclists in any state. If a no-helmet bicyclist sustains head injuries, it is up to the insurance company to produce convincing evidence that a commonly available bicycle helmet would have prevented or diminished the specific injury that occurred. If an insurance adjuster makes this argument, it simply becomes another part of the negotiating process. It may weaken the bicyclist's claim, but it does not end the claim altogether. And it does not affect the bicyclist's claim for injuries to other parts of the body.
For a motorcyclist without a helmet, a claim for head or neck injuries is much more difficult to pursue. There is overwhelming documentation—which an insurance adjuster has no trouble producing—that a helmet usually significantly reduces head injuries. It then becomes the job of the claimant to persuade the insurance adjuster that the injury would have happened even with a helmet. The negotiations will revolve around the extent to which the injury would have been reduced by having worn a helmet, and therefore how much compensation for the injury should be reduced.
If either a bicyclist or a motorcyclist is required by law to wear a helmet and sustains a head injury while riding without one, it is extremely difficult to obtain any compensation for the head injury. (A claim may still be successful, however, for other injuries.) The existence of the law automatically establishes the rider's comparative negligence. To obtain any compensation, the cyclist would have to show that the injury would have occurred even if he or she had been wearing a helmet. This is a very tough task, and—if it is possible at all—almost certainly requires the services of an experienced personal injury lawyer.
To learn more about factors that could affect an injury claim, and what to expect at every step in your case, get How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim by Joseph L. Matthews (Nolo).