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Bike Law University: Helmet Mandate Laws Thornier Than They Seem

helmet fittingIt’s all the buzz for bicyclists here in the capital region: The state of Maryland could be the first to pass a law mandating helmet use for all bicyclists regardless of age.

Currently, no state has such a requirement, though a good number have a similar statute to Maryland’s: mandating helmet use for bicyclists under the age of 16.

With all the discussion about helmet laws, I figured it was a good time to tackle this thorny issue in my ongoing Bike Law University series

What are helmet laws?

Helmet laws require any person on a bicycle wear a helmet. All current helmet laws are directed at persons under the age of 18. No state requires mandatory helmet use by all bicyclists. In many states,  helmet laws can be enforced against the person on the bicycle or against a parent of that person. Some states with a mandatory helmet use law limit whether compliance with the law can be considered in civil lawsuits in order to prevent their laws from limiting the recovery of bicyclists who are injured. There are many other variations on the enforcement and effect of mandatory helmet use laws, as discussed through the laws of our spotlight states.

Why should you care?

The use of helmets is perhaps the most common recommendation for safer bicycling. The League has encouraged bicyclists to wear helmets for more than 25 years, and our affiliated clubs and advocacy groups typically require their use on organized rides. However, the League does not support mandatory helmet laws because of the many potential unintended consequences.

The experience of countries with greater bicycle use than the United States tells us that safer bicycling comes from many policy decisions — especially safer infrastructure — and does not require mandatory helmet use laws. Mandatory helmet use laws may hurt bicyclist safety overall by discouraging bicycling, by promoting the idea that it is an unsafe activity or by raising a barrier to transportation choice — despite being the safest choice for an individual cyclist. We all want safer bicycling and policies that encourage more people to ride, provide appropriate facilities, and educate all road users about safely sharing the road. These are likely to be more effective in the long term.

Who has them?

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have laws that require persons under the age of 18 to wear a helmet. Within that, however, the age threshold varies widely. Of states that require helmet use, most (12) only require helmets for persons less than 16 years of age. Of the 15 states that require helmet use, the District of Columbia and Virginia — which does not require helmet use — maintain a law that limits the consideration of failure to wear a helmet in a lawsuit. This protects the ability of a bicyclist who chose not to wear a helmet to recover damages if they are injured in a crash. The need for and effect of such a law may be more or less necessary depending upon how liability or fault is determined in a state.

state helmet laws chart use1

(Click on the image to view the full chart showing the breakdown of helmet laws across the country.)

Where did they come from?

The first state to pass a mandatory helmet law was California in 1986. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has had mandatory helmet performance requirements for helmet manufacturers since 1999. As of the last revision to the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC) in 2000, there is no UVC section equivalent to a helmet law.

Spotlight States – New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania

When a community chooses to adopt a mandatory helmet use law there are many things to consider. The most common legal concept that varies between states is the age of the persons affected by the mandatory use law. The age standards of the states that have mandatory helmet use laws are detailed in the chart below. States have enacted laws that include some other legal concepts that I would like to highlight. No one state has a statute that includes all of the concepts that may be useful to consider when evaluating a mandatory helmet law, so here we’ll look at three.

New York – VAT §1238

Limitation on Effect of Law – When you create a mandatory helmet use law you open up injured bicyclists to losing out on their ability to recover damages when they are injured if they were not wearing a helmet in compliance with the law. In certain situations, such as being hit by a speeding car, this could create inequity between injured bicyclists, or the families of deceased bicyclists, because of the law rather than the circumstances of the crash. By limiting the ability to consider compliance with a mandatory helmet use law ensures that the focus is on the circumstances of a crash rather than the compliance of the bicyclist with the law.

(7) “The failure of any person to comply with the provisions of this section shall not constitute contributory negligence or assumption of risk, and shall not in any way bar, preclude or foreclose an action for personal injury or wrongful death by or on behalf of such person, nor in any way diminish or reduce the damages recoverable in any such action.”

Dismissal for hardship – In the United States data suggests that helmet ownership and usage is lower among low-income communities. Free or subsidized helmet programs have been shown to be an effective intervention to increase ownership and use within low-income communities. By providing for a waiver due  economic hardship the law helps ensure that the impact of a mandatory helmet use law is not felt disproportionately by low-income communities or provide limit the ability of low-income individuals to take advantage of bicycling as a form of cheap  transportation.

(6)(c) “The court may waive any fine for which a person … if the court finds that due to reasons of economic hardship such person was unable to purchase a helmet or due to such economic hardship such person was unable to obtain a helmet from the [statewide helmet distribution program].”

New Jersey – §39:4-10.2

Dedication of fines

(b) “All money collected as fines … shall be deposited in a nonlapsing revolving fund to be known as the ‘Bicycle and Skating Safety Fund.’  Interest earned on money deposited in the fund shall accrue to the fund.  Money in the fund shall be utilized by the director to provide educational programs devoted to bicycle, roller skating and skateboarding safety.  If the director … also may use … the money to assist low income families in purchasing approved bicycle helmets.”

Pennsylvania – 75: §3510

Dismissal for purchase – The purpose of a mandatory helmet use law is to ensure that people have and use helmets while bicycling. By providing a waiver of a fine for a violation of a mandatory helmet use law if a bicyclist can show the purchase of a helmet a bicyclist is given an incentive to ensure they can comply with the law in the future.

(b)(2) “If a person receives a citation … a [ judge] shall dismiss the charges if the person prior to or at the person’s hearing displays evidence of acquisition of a helmet … [judge]. Sufficient evidence shall include a receipt mailed to the appropriate court officer which evidences purchase or transfer of such a helmet from another helmet owner, evidenced by a notarized letter.”

Religious exception – Some religions have beliefs that are inconsistent with properly wearing a bicycle helmet. For instance, devout Sikhs are expected to wear a turban which a bicycle helmet cannot accommodate. By providing a religious exception to the application of a mandatory helmet use law these religious communities are not disproportionately affected by the law and continue to use and enjoy bicycles.

(b)(3) “This section shall not apply to a child under 12 years of age who can produce a statement from the family’s church authorities attesting that it is against the tenets of the family’s religion to wear a helmet.”

Stay tuned for future Bike Law University posts and check out our interactive map to learn more about laws in your state.


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