Motorcycle Helmets in California: How to Ride Legally
Do you always wear your helmet when riding a motorcycle? According to a study released by NOPUS, safety helmets were used by 64% of motorcyclists across the United States in 2014. However, the figures are significantly higher for those states that have specific laws requiring using helmets, compared to those which do not. But to which group does California belong? Is it mandatory to be helmeted in your state each time you ride a motorcycle? Let’s delve into this issue to learn about all aspects, starting with your safety and moving up to legal responsibility!
Motorcycle Helmet Requirements Overview
It seems there’s no end to the battles around bikers’ safety helmets between NHTSA and local governments. While NHTSA insists on tightening the laws to improve road safety and to reduce mortality rates among motorcyclists, state authorities try to retain some freedom of choice for motorcycle operators and their passengers. NHTSA’s viewpoint is quite clear and based on sad statistics: head injuries are proven to be a leading cause of fatalities in motorcycle road accidents. According to NHTSA, helmet use can reduce road casualty rates by 37% and prevent 67% of brain injuries, thus saving several thousand lives annually, not to mention a few more thousand saved from disability.
However, despite NHTSA’s efforts to encourage state authorities to adopt laws requiring all riders to wear helmets, the so-called universal helmet laws are currently only in force in 20 jurisdictions across the United States. These laws apply to both motorbike operators and passengers regardless of their age. Most states have requirements that mandate the use of helmets only for certain groups of riders, such as:
- operators and passengers under 18-21 years;
- only passengers;
- operators holding a learner’s permit;
- bikers holding a license for less than 1-2 year;
- only passengers accompanying inexperienced bikers (under 18-21 years, holding a learner’s permit or holding a license for less than 1-2 years);
- only operators without a certain insurance coverage;
- operators who didn’t complete a state-approved safety course.
Also, 3 states have no requirements for helmet use at all — they are Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire. In fairness it must be said that in 2015 motorcyclist fatalities make up 39 people for Iowa, 26 people for New Hampshire, and 146 people for Illinois, which is still a far cry from Texas, California, and Florida with their 455, 489, and 550 fatalities correspondingly. However, in California, we can observe a decrease in the death rate, and it is very likely that if it weren’t for the local laws, the number of deaths would have been much higher.
How to Ride a Motorcycle Legally in California
Since 1992, California is one of those 19 states to adopt universal helmet laws. This means that each time you travel by motorcycle either as an operator or as a passenger, you must wear a helmet to protect your head. Your age, driving experience, type of license and insurance policy don’t matter—you cannot ride legally on California public roads without a helmet.
Note that California Vehicle Code imposes liability on both operator and passenger. When acting as an operator, you are prohibited from riding without a helmet, but you are also prohibited from carrying a passenger who is not wearing a helmet. In both cases, you can be punished by local regulations. However, when acting as a passenger, you are also prohibited from riding without a safety helmet, and both you and the operator of the motorcycle can be punished if you choose not to wear one. Thus, you should understand that it is always your personal responsibility to use a helmet when riding in California.
Also, keep in mind that the law covers all types of low-power cycles:
- motor-driven cycles (with engines of 149 cc or less)
- motorized bicycles (including mopeds)
So, you need to be helmeted when riding almost any 2 or 3-wheeler provided with a motor with only a few exceptions. Now, let’s find out whether you can ride legally wearing any helmet or there are more requirements for this.
Which Motorcycle Safety Helmet is Legal to Use?
According to California Vehicle Code, to legally ride you can only use a helmet that is up to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 218. Safety helmets that comply with these standards are also known as DOT-approved, though they are not actually tested by the US Department of Transportation. In fact, manufacturers are required to provide and certify the compliance with the manufacturing standards established by the DOT, as well as to label their helmets in a proper way. Thus, when you wear a helmet with a sticker proving that the helmet conforms to FMVSS 218 standards, you can ride a motorcycle legally, and the responsibility for a possible non-conformity with the standards lies with the manufacturer.
While FMVSS 218 is addressed to manufacturers, NHTSA gives its own recommendations for choosing safe and reliable motorcycle helmets. There is a good reason to follow these recommendations, since it is about your life and health, rather than about technical responsibility for a bad-quality helmet. NHTSA recommends paying attention to the following factors:
- thickness of inner liner—the liner should be made of polystyrene foam and be at least 1 inch thick;
- chinstraps and rivets—these details should be strong and reliable by feel;
- helmet weight—really protective helmets should be rather weighty (about 3 pounds);
- protruding details—a helmet should have no decorations or other elements, extending further than two-tenths of an inch from the surface;
- helmet design—full-face design is preferable over German Army or skull cap styles;
- shell materials—an outer shell of a good helmet should be made of resin/fiber composite;
- no visible defects—cracks, loose padding and other obvious defects are not allowed;
- snug fit—a safe helmet should have a good fit to the head all the way around;
- secure fastening—a helmet should fasten tightly enough so that it can be held in place when you are shaking your head;
- DOT labeling—the labeling should not be made in an easily-removable way;
- extra labeling—Snell or the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) labels, complementing a DOT label, is a plus. Also, manufacturer labeling is required in accordance with FMVSS 218 standards, including manufacturer’s name, date of helmet production, its model and size.
Helmets that have all the above-mentioned features are unlikely to be counterfeit and thus they are safer for you.
Keep in mind that when caught riding without a helmet, you can face penalties of up to $250 and one year’s probation. Since California’s laws allow for discrepancies, riding without a helmet can be considered either as an ordinary equipment violation, which requires correction and a $10 fine or as an immediate safety hazard, punished by more severe penalties.
Also, note that you can stumble across questions about wearing motorcycle helmets when passing your knowledge test. In particular, such questions are introduced in test samples in the California Motorcycle Handbook. So, it makes sense to brush up on your knowledge of the subject by taking a knowledge test on Driver-Start.com. Do not waste your time and go through the testing for your own safety!