What do motorcycle helmet laws do and how effective are they?

What do motorcycle helmet laws do and how effective are they?

Motorcycle helmet laws vary from state to state and this can make riding a motorcycle across state lines quite a hassle. Not everyone would be aware of what is legal and not in each state, so if a rider not wearing a helmet crosses a state with helmet laws in place, chances are the rider would be committing an expensive violation.

To avoid such inconvenience during a ride, it is best to wear a helmet at all times. Not only will it ensure safety, but a rider will also not have to worry about the laws changing from state to state.

States with motorcycle helmet laws

Out of all the states, only three do not have motorcycle helmet laws in place. The rest of the states have legislation in place to mandate the use of helmets. These are:

Without age requirement










New Jersey

New York

North Carolina





Washington (District of Columbia)

Washington (state)

West Virginia

With age requirement

  • 25 years old and below


  • 21 years old and below







Rhode Island

South Carolina



  • 19 years old and below


  • 18 years old and below











New Mexico

North Dakota



South Dakota



States without motorcycle helmet laws

  • Illinois

Illinois does not require motorcycle riders and passengers to wear helmets. However, the state requires them to have eye protection such as glasses, goggles, or a transparent shield.

Under Illinois law, “glasses” refer to eyewear made of shatter-resistant material; “goggles” refer to eye protection that also protects the sides of the head without compromising peripheral vision; while a “transparent shield” refers to a windshield made of shatter-resistant material installed at the front of the motorcycle that extends above the eyes when the rider is seated in an upright riding position.

  • Iowa

Iowa had repealed its mandatory motorcycle helmet law in 1976, but as of 2013, there is proposed legislation to reinstate it.

  • New Hampshire

New Hampshire does not implement any helmet law since the National Highway System Designation Act was passed in 1995, but riders under the age of 18 are still required to wear helmets.

Helmet use statistics

  • In 2012, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that “laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear helmets are the only strategy proved to be effective in reducing motorcyclist fatalities.”
  • In 2017, the number of non-helmeted motorcycle rider deaths in states without motorcycle helmet laws (1.777) was ten times as many as the number of non-helmeted motorcycle rider deaths in states with motorcycle helmet laws (170).
  • Helmets prevent $17 billion worth of societal harm every year, but another $8 billion could have been saved if all motorcycle riders wore helmets.
  • In states with a universal helmet law, the mandatory use of helmets saved $725 in economic costs per registered motorcycle, compared to $198 saved per registered motorcycle in states without helmet laws.
  • Helmets save $2.7 billion in economic costs every year.
  • In 2017, motorcycle riders accounted for 14% of the total traffic fatalities, despite representing only 3% of all registered vehicles.
  • More than 82% of Americans are in favor of state laws requiring all motorcycle riders to wear helmets.
  • Motorcycle helmets reduce the risk of head injuries by 69% and death by 42%.

Are motorcycle helmet laws really effective?

From a public safety perspective, helmet laws are effective in lowering overall fatality rates and the likelihood of head injuries, fatal or otherwise.

Several reports from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reveal that the rate of helmet use in states where motorcycle helmet laws have been repealed has dropped significantly.

In Arkansas, the compliance rate for helmet use dropped to 52% from 97% when they replaced their universal helmet law with a partial one. Florida and Louisiana did the same thing and saw a drop in their helmet use compliance rates as well, from 99% to 53% for Florida and 100% to 52% for Louisiana. 

Additionally, the NHTSA reports also indicated that in states that require only minors to wear helmets, less than 40% of underage riders who were fatally injured wore a helmet. This means that despite a law requiring helmets, it is difficult to determine whether a rider is a minor, thereby hindering enforcement of the law.

As a result of these drops in compliance rates, the number of riders who were killed and sustained traumatic brain injuries increased. A year after they repealed their existing universal helmet laws, the fatality rates of Arkansas and Louisiana increased by 21% and more than 100% respectively. Following this, Louisiana decided to reenact its universal helmet law.

Not only did helmet laws affect injury and fatality rates, but they also affected health care costs for riders and the general public. This is because injured riders often use shared health care and insurance resources, and uninsured riders often rely on public assistance programs to pay for their medical expenses.

The debate surrounding helmet laws

Given its proven efficacy, one would think that there is no arguing the use of motorcycle helmets. However, the debate about whether its use should be mandatory or not has been going on for ages.

One side argues that federal law should require motorcycle riders to wear helmets at all times when riding while the other insists that the decision to wear a helmet is solely the rider’s decision.

Those who are against helmet laws also argue that making helmet use mandatory is the federal government’s attempt at controlling an area that should otherwise be at the discretion of each state. On the other hand, those who are for helmet laws believe that such legislation saves lives, reduces the risk of injuries, and helps curb motorcycle theft.

The beginning of helmet laws

The federal government began encouraging states to pass motorcycle helmet laws in 1967. To do this, the government created a federal safety program that allotted highway construction funds to states, provided that they implement motorcycle helmet laws. Eight years later, 47 states enacted helmet regulations.

However, the states pressured Congress to revoke the federal authority to penalize those who refuse to implement helmet laws. In 1976, Congress eventually gave in, and shortly after, several states relaxed their helmet laws. 

In another attempt to entice states, Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act in 1991 which provided incentives to states that will pass helmet laws. Four years later though, Congress reversed their decision again by lifting federal sanctions against states without helmet laws.

Pro-helmet law advocates

For people who support mandatory helmet use, the statistics do not lie. They believe that helmets do save lives and riders are likely to use them when states enact laws requiring them. 

Many studies support this belief as well. According to the NHTSA, helmets reduce the likelihood of a rider getting killed in an accident by 29%. The Hurt Study also corroborates the NHTSA’s findings, revealing that riders wearing helmets are at a much lower risk for all types of neck and head injuries.

Pro-helmet law advocates also maintain that such legislation can also reduce the number of motorcycle theft incidents. This is because motorcycle thieves will fail to bring a helmet when they steal a motorcycle, so if a helmet law is in place, the police can easily determine the thief because of that person’s lack of protective headgear.

Lastly, helmet law advocates also assert that most developed countries are already implementing mandatory helmet laws. They argue that if other countries consider it necessary to have helmet laws to protect their citizens, the US should too. 

Anti-helmet law organizations

For people who are against helmet laws, however, the government will only undermine each state’s rights if this mandatory legislation is passed. 

ABATE, a popular charitable organization that fights for motorcycle riders’ rights, is opposed to the federal government making helmet laws mandatory. For them, education, not legislation, is the key to creating a safe environment for motorcycle riders. 

The American Motorcyclist Association (AMA), another organization that advocates for motorcycle riders, is also against mandatory helmet use. This organization supports helmet laws aimed at underage riders because they agree that riders belonging to the younger demographic lack the needed maturity to make a proper decision about helmet use. 

However, despite encouraging helmet use for all motorcycle riders, the AMA is vehemently opposed to legislation requiring helmets. According to them, the decision to wear a helmet is up to the individual rider alone.

For many opponents of the proposed helmet law, simply wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle is an unnecessary and insufficient way of ensuring rider safety.  Instead, they believe that riders should educate themselves about safe riding practices and avoid dangerous situations altogether.