Helmet Laws and Motorcycle Accident Cases
January 21, 2010
A helmet is by far the most important and most effective piece of protective equipment a motorcycle driver or passenger can wear. Helmets save lives by reducing the extent of head injuries in the event of a traffic accident. A helmetless motorcyclist involved in an accident is three times as likely to suffer a brain injury as a motorcyclist wearing a helmet, and a large number of motorcyclists die each year because of head injuries sustained in accidents. Because of this danger, motorcycle operators and passengers in many states are required by statute to wear safety helmets.
Mandatory Helmet Laws
Despite a lack of support among some motorcyclists, a number of states have enacted statutes requiring the use of protective equipment when riding a motorcycle. Some of these laws require that a motorcycle rider and/or his or her passenger wear equipment such as goggles or face shields, but most common (and most controversial) are those laws that require the wearing of a helmet.
Mandatory helmet laws for motorcycle operators and their passengers have, for the most part, proven to be an effective strategy in both increasing helmet use and reducing head injuries and fatalities in motorcycle accidents nationwide. But, while having an unmistakably positive effect on the overall safety of motorcycle riding, helmet laws have been met by resistance in the motorcycling community.
The most vocal opposition to helmet laws has come by way of challenges to the legality of the laws themselves. Although in some cases, specific language in helmet statutes has been successfully attacked on constitutional grounds, the principle of requiring motorcyclists and their passengers to wear safety helmets has consistently been upheld as constitutional.
Failure to Wear a Helmet
In a personal injury action brought by an injured motorcyclist, the opposing motorist may raise an issue with regard to the motorcyclist’s own negligence. A motorcyclist’s legal recovery might be barred, or reduced, as a result of his/her contributory negligence in causing the accident. In defining what constitutes contributory negligence, there is an important distinction between negligence contributing to the accident and negligence contributing to the injuries sustained. An act or omission that merely increases or adds to the extent of the injuries suffered by the motorcyclist will not itself defeat a legal recovery.
In a number of states that have enacted mandatory helmet statutes, the laws either: (1) provide only for criminal penalties, or (2) do not state what effect a violation has on the determination of whether a motorcyclist was negligent. Thus, in these jurisdictions, and in those that do not have helmet laws, the effect of a motorcyclist’s failure to wear a helmet on the determination of his negligence is unsettled. In such states, the failure to wear a helmet may be found to constitute negligence on the part of a motorcyclist, or may be relevant to the issue of injuries and damages where it appears the failure to wear a helmet was a substantial factor in bringing about the motorcyclist’s injuries.
In some states, the failure to wear a helmet as required by a statute is treated as any other possible act of negligence on the part of a motorcyclist, such as traveling at an excessive rate of speed or failing to use turn signals. In such states, when the failure to wear a helmet contributes to the motorcyclist’s injuries, it is deemed a proximate cause of his injuries and it may serve to bar or limit his or her recovery. However, when the failure contributes in no way to the motorcyclist’s injuries, it is not a proximate cause and it has no effect on the motorcyclist’s ability to recover.
Not all jurisdictions have laws requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets, and some courts have held that evidence of an injured motorcycle rider’s failure to wear a helmet is inadmissible in the rider’s personal injury lawsuit. It is extremely important to discuss the facts of your case with an experienced personal injury attorney who understands the relevant helmet and evidentiary laws that will apply in your case.
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