Bicycle Helmet Laws in California 2024

Bicycle helmet laws are gaining traction around the country. Backed by scientific studies that show not only the health impact and injury reduction rates associated with bicycle helmet use but the dollar figure associated with those potentially avoided accidents, many municipalities across the country are crafting laws that require bike riders to wear helmets—especially children who ride. While there are no statewide bike helmet laws in California, several cities do have local ordinances on the books that require riders (even adult riders) to use these effective safety devices.

Do You Have to Wear a Helmet on Your Bike in California?

In most cases, the answer to that question is “no.” If you’re over the age of 18 (and even younger in some areas) you don’t have to wear a helmet while riding a bike in California. However, as with every law, there are exceptions. Some localities (like Bidwell Park, Chico, and El Cerrito) do require adults to wear helmets. So, as always, it’s best to know and understand the local legislation and town ordinances wherever you intend to ride so you always ride on the right side of the law.

Who Legally has to Wear a Bike Helmet in California?

The only statewide law pertaining to the use of bicycle helmets mandates that children 17-years-old or younger wear a properly fitted, tested and certified bicycle helmet. Violations of this law could result in penalties (including fines) as well as increased civil liability. That means that parents, guardians, or other “responsible adults” could potentially be in trouble if they fail to ensure that the child (or children) in their care are wearing the proper, legally mandated safety equipment.

(The regulation also requires that those under the age of 17 wear acceptable helmets when using roller blades, scooters, and skateboards.)

The regulation goes further than to simply mandate the use of helmets. It requires that these helmets meet certain specifications including fit, impact rating, and material composition.

These standards are defined by several nationwide industry leaders including the CPSC, ASTM, and Snell.

  • CPSC approved helmets must not block a riders’ vision, cannot become dislodged during a fall, and must “significantly reduce” the physical impact suffered by a rider’s head when it collides with a hard surface.

  • ASTM standards include specifications of the straps or retention system installed on the helmet as well.

  • Snell certification is the highest honor a bike helmet can earn because it’s also the strictest. Snell-approved helmets must pass tests designed to measure impact resistance, position retention (fit and retention system integrity), and requirements pertaining to the area of coverage the helmet provides.

It is illegal under California law for retailers to sell improper helmets that do not meet the definition clearly created by this legislation.

The Real Risk of Not Wearing A Bicycle Helmet in California

Even when wearing a bike helmet in California isn’t specifically mandated by law, it’s a good idea. While not all bicycle safety organizations actively recommend using helmets, widely available data clearly shows that there is a significant impact on the occurrences, types, and severity of injuries suffered by victims of bicycle accidents when they are using properly fitted helmets.

However, many people choose not to wear bike helmets in California for one reason or another. Many people think that they don’t really need to wear a helmet because they always ride safely and their risk of being in a collision is relatively small.

But do you really know your personal risk of being involved in a bike accident?

Your Risk of Being in a Bicycle Accident in California

According to statewide statistics, every year there are roughly 12,000 bicycle accidents in California.

That equates to roughly 33 accidents per million people. With an average annual population of just about 40 million people, you might think that your overall risk of being involved in a bicycle accident in California is pretty low—using those figures, roughly 3% of us are in one every year. Not too bad, right?

However, that doesn’t paint a clear picture of the real danger every rider is in. Indeed, because not everyone in California rides (or even owns) a bicycle, that statistic is significantly skewed. In order to narrow the risk percentage down substantially, let’s take a look at the results of a massive nationwide study published by StreetsBlog.

Out of over 100 million respondents, just 29% of those people over the age of 18 report having ridden a bicycle in the past year. That’s less than 1/3 of the population and even less than the total number of people who own bicycles. Transfer those numbers to the population of California and you get an estimate of just 11.6 million people in the state who rode at least once in the past year.

(That number might be slightly lower than actual because California, as a state, has higher than average bicycle ownership when compared to the rest of The United States. Indeed, certain cities—like San Francisco—are very “bike-centric.” Just this past year, there were over 8 million bicycles counted across 40 locations in San Francisco.)

When we use those base numbers to calculate a relatively accurate risk assessment for each rider, we get just over 10%. That means that we can reasonably expect one-in-ten people who own and ride bicycles to be involved in some type of bicycle accident in California every year.

But how serious are those accidents? Estimates from the California Highway Patrol, the State Department of Transportation, and The National Highway Transportation Safety Board show that there are roughly 700 fatal bicycle accidents in the state every year. (Almost 6% of the total number of accidents.)

A significant portion of those 700 involve some type of head trauma. But head trauma isn’t always deadly.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Has Long-term Life-Altering Effects

Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) occur when the soft tissue that make up the brain are violently sloshed about inside the skull. There are various types of Traumatic Brain Injury including blunt force trauma, puncture wounds, and tearing of the blood vessels and nerve tissue inside the brain. Each have very serious consequences and can result in death, paralysis, life-long impairment, and persistent vegetative states.

Even minor Traumatic Brain Injuries like concussions can result in:

  • Headaches
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Vision problems
  • Dizziness
  • and more

These symptoms can last for minutes, hours, or even days after the initial trauma.

Wearing a Bicycle Helmet Prevents Injury

So, if you find yourself asking “do I have to wear a bicycle helmet in California?” the answer is likely “no.” But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be wearing one.

Indeed, doing so can greatly reduce your risk of serious injury—injury that could have significant financial impact on you and your family.

Public safety and awareness agencies like The California Bicycle Coalition have long advocated that wearing a bicycle helmet can significantly decrease a victim’s risk of suffering a Traumatic Brain Injury and now there’s hard science to back that statement up. A study published in The American Journal of Surgery found that simply wearing a bicycle helmet can prevent over 50% of all TBI suffered by bicycle accident victims.

In addition, wearing a helmet was associated with a 44% reduced risk of death and a 31% reduced risk of facial fractures. The potential dollar figure associated with these avoidable injuries runs into the millions of dollars.

The Liability Issue

Even if the physical incentive isn’t enough to get you to wear a bicycle helmet in California, the liability issue might be. California is a comparative negligence state. This means that when two or more parties are involved in an accident and pursue financial compensation in the court system, each party is assigned a portion of the liability (fault) for an accident. That liability percentage is used to determine just how much compensation each party is entitled to and who has to pay whom.

Wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle in California helps to shift your liability in the event of an accident. While many tangible factors (such as who had the right of way) play into determining this liability split, other intangible elements come into play when a case goes to trial. In motorcycle accident cases, victims often face a significant bias that’s ingrained in the minds of jurors and judges simply because motorcyclists have earned (rightly or wrongly) bad public reputations over the years. Bicyclists are subject to that same sort of bias.

While the stigma of riding a bicycle isn’t as powerful or as widespread as that of riding a motorcycle, many people see cyclists as “reckless” or “self-involved” or even “inherently dangerous.” All of these negative attitudes play a part in the individual’s decision making process even if it’s at the subconscious level.

Wearing a helmet can help to alleviate that bias because it presents an image of the cyclists as a responsible, safety-minded individual rather than a free-wheeling thrill-seeker like those portrayed in bike messenger movies.

While the effect of that bias may be subtle, it is very real and translates directly into dollar amounts.

Wearing a Bike Helmet in California Isn’t the Only Way to Protect Yourself

If you’ve already been involved in an accident—whether or not you were wearing a helmet at the time—having an experienced bike accident attorney in California working for you is the best way to secure the financial compensation you need. Indeed, a good lawyer can often get you an adequate and fair compensation package even if you weren’t wearing a helmet in a municipality that requires you to do so.

Not Wearing a Bicycle Helmet Could Potentially Jeopardize Your Potential Accident Compensation

If you are in violation of any of California bicycle laws at the time of a collision, (whether with an automobile, another bicycle, or a pedestrian), you may not only face fines – it could also reduce the amount of your potential accident claim settlement. Although not wearing a helmet won’t subject you to fines, as explained above, it can weigh against your potential settlement when you make a bicycle accident claim. For instance, if you injure your head, neck or face – all areas somewhat protected by a bicycle helmet – in a bike accident while not wearing a helmet, you could be facing an uphill battle on proving your injuries were solely the result of the other party’s actions, not your own negligence for failing to wear a helmet.

However, with a highly skilled bicycle accident lawyer, you can still make a strong case and get a full and fair bicycle accident settlement, even if you weren’t wearing your helmet. If you were badly injured in a bicycle accident without a helmet be sure to contact our team of San Francisco bicycle accident lawyers right away for a FREE case evaluation.