In an effort to keep motorcycle drivers and passengers safe, the laws of many states require all riders to use helmets and protective eyewear. However, most states, though they generally have some safety requirements for motorcycle riders, don't require helmets and eye protection across the board.
This article covers state motorcycle helmet and protective gear laws and some common penalties for violations of these laws.
In the 60s and 70s, almost all states had laws requiring the use of motorcycle helmets. But since then, many states have either repealed or amended their helmet laws. Nowadays, there are lots of helmet law variations among the states. However, in states that have helmet laws, the helmet requirements generally fall into one or more of three categories:
But, again, the laws of each state are different. So there are lots of variations.
Only a minority of states (currently 18) require motorcycle helmets for all drivers and passengers. The states where motorcycle helmets are mandatory include:
Although the helmet requirement applies to both drivers and passengers, state law differs on who will get the ticket. Generally, the person who's not wearing proper equipment will be issued the citation. But some states allow for the driver to be issued a citation for allowing a passenger (especially if underage) to ride without a helmet.
The majority of states (currently 29) require helmets only for motorcycle drivers and passengers who are under a certain age. This age limit ranges from 26 years old in Missouri to 18 years old in Hawaii. The states that have age-based helmet requirements include:
It should be noted that all states are subject to child restraint laws for small children, which may outright prohibit certain children from riding on motorcycles.
Some states—like Missouri and Pennsylvania—have motorcycle helmets requirements that apply only to motorcycle drivers who just hold a learner's permit. This type of restriction would generally be lifted once the driver obtains a valid motorcycle license (assuming the driver isn't subject to an age-based helmet requirement).
There are currently only three states that don't have motorcycle helmet laws:
In these states, wearing a helmet is completely optional. However, the child seat, seatbelt, and booster seat laws of these states might prohibit children of certain ages from lawfully riding on a motorcycle altogether.
Most states have specific language regarding the manufacturer specifications for protective helmets and the like. To simplify compliance, the Department of Transportation certifies and approves many manufactured helmets. As long as your purchase a helmet that has a DOT-issued sticker on it, it will comply with all state requirements.
Every state—with the exception of Iowa—requires all motorcycle riders to have eye protection. If a rider does choose not to wear a helmet, they are still required to have eye protection by either wearing goggles or having a windshield.
Some states have regulations specifying what type of eyewear is permitted, while others, like Kansas, simply require that the eyewear be shatterproof and scratch-resistant. DOT-certified goggles and glasses will generally satisfy these requirements, but check with local rules if you intend to use prescription glasses.
The choice to ride a motorcycle without a helmet can impact how much an injured motorcycle rider can recover for injuries related to an accident. In personal injury cases, courts have found that failing to wear a helmet can be used as a comparative fault defense. In other words, a driver who's injured in an accident might receive less money if he or she chose not to wear a helmet.
Also, some states, like Florida, require drivers who choose to ride without protection to carry higher insurance policies in order to offset the possible dangers.
For states with helmet and eye protection requirements, very few exceptions exist. But in some states, ATVs and dirt bikes used for agricultural purposes are exempt from the standard rules. Also, in some states, helmet and eye protection laws don't apply to certain electric scooters and mopeds. Be sure to check with a local attorney if you are unsure of the status of your vehicle and required compliance.
Just as the laws regarding motorcycle helmets vary between states, so do the penalties. Fines for motorcycle helmet and eye protection violations typically range from $25 to $200. In some states, these violations can also lead to demerit points and other types of license-related penalties.
Enforcement rules for helmet violations also vary by state. In some states, not wearing a helmet is considered a secondary violation, whereas a helmet offense is a primary violation in other states. Police can stop a driver for a primary violation. But to ticket a driver for a secondary violation, there needs to be some other legitimate reason for the stop, such as speeding or running a stop sign.