Life and Style

College 101: Which States Have Helmet Law?

I recently came into some money and bought a Harley-Davidson Sportster, fulfilling a lifelong dream. But I go to school out of state, and a buddy of mine warned me that not every state has the same helmet laws, which I’d never really thought about before. I have a cruiser, but apparently laws vary depending on the type of bike you have. The more I look into it, the more confused I am. What am I supposed to do?

It is true that motorcycle helmet laws vary widely across the United States. Some states have what is known as a “universal helmet law”, requiring the use of a helmet in every county. Currently, there are 20 states with universal helmet laws, 28 states with flexible helmet laws, and three states with no helmet laws whatsoever. Given that the majority of states do not require all motorcyclists to wear a helmet, it’s understandable that confusion has arisen.

It wasn’t always like this. In the late 1960s, the federal government put pressure on the states to enforce helmet requirements for all motorcycle riders. They went about this by offering federal incentives, including highway construction funds that appealed to many states with outdated roads in need of repair. The incentive worked, and by the early 1970s, when motorcycle culture was popular and prosperous, all but a few states demanded adherence to helmet laws. People were generally safer and less accidents occurred.

It wasn’t until 1976 when states began to feel stifled by the “big government” influence and began to lobby in Congress for the abolition of financial penalties on states who preferred to opt out of what they considered strict helmet laws. They were successful, and the penalties were removed. 

As you might have gathered, the current confusing helmet laws in the United States reflect the political efforts of these groups many years ago. Risks of riding without a helmet are widely documented, and states with seemingly restrictive helmet laws have fewer fatalities than states with more lax laws. Sadly, the 1970s saw an increased number of injuries and deaths, very likely in response to the loosening helmet laws in many states. 

It goes without saying that helmets, as well as other protective and preventative measures such as anti-lock brakes, are a good idea. They have saved countless lives and will continue to do so if motorcyclists adhere to safety standards and wear helmets when riding. Regardless of any state laws, it’s safer to ride with a helmet than without one, and you should keep that in mind.

According to research by the Center for Public Health Law at Temple University, motorcycle crashes are a significant public health concern. Tragedies can easily be avoided by remembering to wear protective headgear. Popular brands such as Bell helmets have a long history of offering sturdy, solid protection to motorcyclists, and to this day remain well-respected for their manufacturing and their capacity to prevent tragic accidents and injuries. 

Despite the obvious evidence to suggest that helmet use is beneficial and even necessary to maintain a considerable standard of road safety, many riders still choose to forego helmets, perhaps due to an exaggerated belief in their own invincibility, an apathetic sense that they can beat the odds, or perhaps simply because cultural standards regarding safe motorcycle use vary so drastically across the country. Illinois helmet laws, for instance, are practically nonexistent even for minors.

So, what are your options, as an owner and frequent rider of a cruiser model? If you live in a state with universal helmet laws, you should always wear a helmet, no matter what type of bike you own. Ignoring enforced helmet laws in a state with universal helmet laws is a misdemeanor and will result in a fine probably somewhere in the range of $500. 

If, on the other hand, you live in a state with partial helmet laws, you have to conduct your own research on the laws surrounding helmet use while riding your specific model of motorcycle. Finally, if you live in a state with no helmet laws at all, ride helmetless at your own risk. You won’t face any criminal charges for leaving your helmet at home, but you could face a consequence far deadlier.

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