Motorcycle Law and the Use of Helmets

A good helmet can make the difference between walking away from a motorcycle accident with relatively few injuries and sustaining major injuries. In addition to protective clothing, a good helmet is all that separates you from the road.  And in many jurisdictions, its use by a motorcycle rider is mandated by law.

Although the addition of a safety helmet as protection saves lives, mandating its use has not always been met with enthusiastic support from motorcycle riders.  Much like bicycle riders, motorcycle riders have resisted the imposition of a legal requirement to use a helmet. Nonetheless, in those jurisdictions that require a motorcycle rider to wear a helmet, its absence can have some serious consequences, especially in a motorcycle accident case. Here are some things to consider when making the decision to wear a helmet or not in those jurisdictions.

Fines Are Costly

In many jurisdictions, the absence of a helmet with get the rider a ticket for noncompliance. But fines can be costly. For instance, in California, a failure to wear a helmet could mean a $10 proof or correction ticket. But it could also mean a fine of $250 and 1 year of probation. Once you add  probation to the mix, freedoms begin to be curtailed.

Impact of a Lack of a Helmet on An Accident Case

While fines are costly, the more severe impact of a decision  not to wear a helmet could be on an accident claim if you are injured. A motorcycle rider without a helmet is much more likely to suffer a serious brain injury in an accident. As such, the choice to forego its use is treated as a contribution to liability and/or damages in some jurisdictions.

The thinking goes like this. It is known by all motorcycle riders that they will be safer with a helmet on. In choosing to forgo wearing one, the motorcycle rider knowingly assumes the risk of a more serious injury in case of an accident. As such, the rider should be legally responsible for that increased risk, not the culpable party. In essence, the rider’s actions contribute to his or her injuries and he or she should not be able to profit from that.

There is a difference between contributory negligence as it pertains to causation in a matter of liability and as it pertains to causation in a matter of damages.  Nonetheless, there are some jurisdictions that allow evidence of a lack of helmet on issues of liability.  Depending on the laws in your jurisdiction, you could be barred from recovery.

In other jurisdictions, such as Washington DC,  Virginia and Maryland, the lack of a helmet cannot be used as evidence of contributory negligence. In those jurisdictions it is not considered evidence relevant to the collision and as such, is inadmissible for that purpose. However, evidence of a lack of helmet use is often admissible on the issue of contribution or causation of damages.

In some jurisdictions, evidence of a lack of a helmet can shift the burden of proof to the motorcycle rider to show that he or she was not contributorily negligent in causing their own damages. This can make the presentation and resolution of a motorcycle accident case more difficult in those jurisdictions. In those jurisdictions in which  contributory negligence acts as a bar to recovery, lack of a helmet may bar an injured motorcyclist from any recovery, or may limit the recovery in those jurisdictions in which contributory negligence acts as a partial bar.

There are some cases in which the evidence is not relevant for any purpose and so is excluded.  If the motorcycle rider did not suffer a head or neck injury, the lack of a helmet is usually not relevant to the issue of damages other than as a part of a property damages claim.

Conversely, if the motorcycle rider is wearing a helmet and there is a head injury, it makes it difficult for an insurance company to argue that the motorcycle rider was acting in an irresponsible manner.  In those cases, the motorcycle rider stands to recover compensation for all or most of their injuries.

Because laws vary so widely, it is best to consult with a trusted attorney to understand what the laws are in your jurisdiction.