There are no federal laws that mandate helmet use when operating or riding as a passenger on a motorcycle. Two states, Iowa and Illinois, currently have no laws governing helmet use. Nineteen states have mandatory helmet laws for both operators and passengers. The remaining 29 states — including Texas — have age minimums for helmet usage.
Case Study: Texas Motorcycle Helmet Laws
While the Texas Department of Public Safety mandates all riders and passengers wear a helmet, there are exceptions. Those who ride a motorcycle and have completed a training course may not need to wear a helmet. There is also an exception for those who have a health insurance rider that provides for a minimum of $10,000 in medical benefits specifically for injuries sustained while operating a motorcycle.
All operators under the age of 21 are required to wear a helmet — no exceptions.
Motorcycle Helmet Safety Standards
Guidelines dictate motorcycle helmet production standards. The Department of Transportation (DOT) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) set out these standards.
The DOT handles helmet testing that states helmets must perform at a certain minimum for:
- Vision – Peripheral vision—drivers must see 105 degrees from the middle of the helmet. Since most people have 120 degrees of peripheral vision, the helmet should not impair more than 15 degrees of vision.
- Penetration – The helmet must withstand a certain amount of force from an item that may pierce the helmet but not the head.
- Impact – All motorcycle helmets must withstand at least 400G when hitting a solid surface.
- Retention – Helmet straps must withstand a specific amount of force and not come off the operator’s head.
Unfortunately, all too often, helmets do not meet these stringent standards. Many riders and passengers purchase novelty helmets that they believe offer them the protection they need to remain safe in an accident. However, these helmets present serious problems that can lead to life-altering injuries.
Motorcycle Helmet Laws Not Free of Controversy
Legislatures started passing motorcycle safety laws as far back as 1967. Since then, numerous challenges have asserted that helmet laws infringe on the Constitutional rights of the operator. What is interesting to note is that in 1976, 46 states had mandatory helmet laws. Over time, there have been numerous court challenges, ranging from local challenges to Supreme Court challenges to helmet laws. In nearly all cases, the courts have upheld the right of a jurisdiction to impose helmet laws.
Some motorcycle enthusiasts cite questionable studies to bolster their theory that helmets do little to protect motorcyclists. Their advocates believe younger operators should wear a helmet, but believe through education and keeping out of dangerous situations, most adult motorcyclists gain no benefit from helmet use.
Some advocates have also promoted the theory that motorcycle helmets can exacerbate head and neck injuries when operating a motorcycle. This opinion persists despite numerous studies that show a decrease of as much as 37% in deaths and a decrease as high as 65% in traumatic brain injuries when a motorcyclist in an accident wears proper headgear.
The Ideal Spot for Motorcycle Operators
To fully enjoy the open road, a motorcycle operator is interested in relatively smooth roads, great weather, and breathtaking scenery. There is little doubt that fuel efficiency, the freedom of the open road, and great weather offer ideal conditions for motorcyclists.
Case Study: Beautiful, but Potentially Deadly
Unfortunately, roadways are also home to some frightening accident statistics. For example, in one recent year, a person lost their life every two hours and 26 minutes on Texas roadways.
Here are some other statistics pertaining to motorcycle crashes in Texas:
- Of the 410 fatalities associated with motorcycle accidents, 185 victims did not have a helmet on. (For 18 fatalities, it was unknown.)
- Of the 1,810 accidents involving a motorcycle where a serious injury occurred, 1,662 victims were drivers and 148 were passengers.
- Most motorcycle accidents occur between May and October annually.
- Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, Lubbock, Odessa, and San Antonio have the highest incidents of fatal motorcycle crashes.
The age of victims in both fatal accidents and serious injury motorcycle accidents was in a broad range, which makes it difficult to determine if inexperience played a role in the primary cause of the crashes.
Keeping Motorcyclists Safe on Roadways
Anyone who is operating a motorcycle needs to be aware of a jurisdiction’s applicable laws.
In Texas, for example, operators are responsible for:
- Holding a valid motorcycle license
- Not carrying a passenger under the age of five
- Ensuring passengers under the age of 21 are wearing an approved helmet
- Wearing an approved helmet if you have not met the requirements for a waiver
Motorcycle operators can still suffer a serious injury because of the careless behavior of another driver on the roadway. Accidents that result in serious injury can result in motorcycle operators needing weeks, and in some cases months or years, of recovery time.
Some injuries that occur in motorcycle accidents include:
- Internal injuries – Victims often suffer “hidden” injuries following a motorcycle crash. Internal bleeding can lead to dangerous levels of blood loss. Even if you think the accident you were involved in was minor, you must seek immediate medical care to ensure you are not suffering from an injury that can lead to more serious consequences.
- Soft tissue injuries – While you may think the aches and pains of “whiplash” are common following any accident, soft tissue injuries can take weeks to heal and can be very painful. Pain in muscles, tendons, and ligaments may be signs of a more serious injury. Keep in mind, a herniated or ruptured disc can get much worse over time, and this type of soft tissue injury can leave you with life-long pain.
- Head trauma – Victims of motorcycle accidents often suffer head trauma, even when they are wearing a helmet. Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are sadly too common following a motorcycle accident. Victims can suffer life-long issues, including cognitive and mobility issues following an accident with an untreated or undiagnosed TBI.
- Spinal cord damage – Victims can suffer injuries that can lead to pain for decades following a motorcycle accident. More severe crashes can paralyze a victim. If you have been involved in a motorcycle accident and notice any serious back pain, even a few days following the accident, seek immediate medical care.
- Broken bones – When you get thrown from a motorcycle, the chances of a broken bone are extremely high. There is nothing to protect you from the impact of hitting the roadway. Pelvic breaks, legs, arms, and broken ribs can all result in long periods of healing and in extreme cases may require surgical intervention.
- Head and facial injuries – Unfortunately, even the best helmet will not prevent all head and facial injuries. Victims can suffer broken noses, broken teeth or jaws, and broken cheekbones following a motorcycle accident. Not only are these injuries painful, but they can also mean a permanent change in your overall appearance. A well-fitted helmet may reduce the risk of these injuries.
While many states allow you to operate a motorcycle without a helmet, it is always a good idea to have an approved helmet with a faceguard that can minimize head and face injuries in an accident.
Getting the right medical care following a motorcycle accident is crucial to your recovery. Even if you think your injuries are only mild, you should see a doctor. Often, victims of an accident are unaware of the severity of their injuries. Your injuries may not be immediately discernible, but if left unattended could lead to more serious health issues.
Helmet Laws and Accident Liability
One of the issues that victims often ask motorcycle accident attorneys: “What happens if I am not wearing a helmet when involved in an accident?” There is no simple answer to this. However, one thing to remember: Insurance company adjusters will probably try to hold this against you.
When you are in an accident that was not your fault, insurers will still do anything possible to blame you. Additionally, if you were not wearing a helmet, the insurer or the at-fault party’s lawyer may claim you deserve no damages or a reduced amount of damages.
Understand that failing to wear a helmet does not mean that you can’t seek compensation.
An experienced motorcycle attorney will take a look at the issues the court might use to determine what role the lack of a helmet may have on your claim, including:
- Your participation in and completion of the training and safety courses required by state law
- You are carrying the proper insurance plan that allows you to drive without a helmet
- Whether you had any passengers at the time of the accident and their ages
- Your age at the time of the accident
- Where and when the accident occurred
- What damages you incurred as a result of the accident
In these cases, you need a motorcycle accident lawyer serving as your advocate. Even when an accident is clearly not your fault, an insurance company will do everything possible to minimize their liability. Having an advocate who understands motorcycle laws including helmet laws, can make a significant difference in the negotiation process. We all know past success is not always a good measure of what will happen with future cases, but an attorney who has a history of standing up for clients, will always stand up for clients.
Wearing a motorcycle helmet is a good practice, regardless of the state’s helmet laws. A well-made helmet can help absorb some of the shock of an accident throwing you from your bike. Research shows motorcycle helmets do save lives even when you are involved in a serious accident. If you or a loved one was in an accident while operating a motorcycle, a lawyer can help you understand how the laws affect you and the compensation you may seek.
You need to know what options are available to you, and the best way to do that is to ask an attorney to review your case. Do not take a chance on getting less compensation than you may be entitled to collect for your injuries following a motorcycle accident, and never let the insurance company off the hook from their responsibilities. You have rights, and contacting an experienced motorcycle accident attorney as soon as possible after a motorcycle accident can protect them.
Stewart J. Guss, Injury Accident Lawyers
12777 Jones Rd #297
Houston, TX 77070