Motorcycle Helmet Law in California

Is there a Motorcycle Helmet Law in California?

California's love affair with the motorcycle has spawned many iconic images of lone wanderers racing through the picturesque countryside with the wind blowing in their hair. But how accurate (or safe) is that picture? Not very. If popular movies and television leave you wondering "is there a motorcycle helmet law in California?" you're not the only one. Indeed, that's one of the most common motorcycle-related questions asked on the internet in our state.

So does California have a motorcycle helmet law and if it does, what are the requirements set forth by such a law and why was it enacted?

Motorcycle Helmet Laws in America

Most states have some sort of motorcycle helmet law (28 of them in fact). But these laws usually include some sort of age requirements. For example, on the East Coast, it's legal for riders in Maine who are 19 years old or older to ride a motorcycle without wearing a helmet. These states have what are called partial helmet laws or limited helmet laws.

But California is not one of them.

In fact, California is one of only 19 states in the union to have a universal helmet law on the books. That means that every motorcycle operator and passenger must wear an approved motorcycle helmet at all times regardless of age.

Why Was California's Motorcycle Helmet Law Created?

The California motorcycle helmet law was enacted in 1992 in response to the growing number of severely injurious and fatal motorcycle accidents occurring throughout the state. Data collected from multiple studies at the time suggested that the use of motorcycle helmets could prevent serious injury and death in a majority of crashes.

Indeed, at least one well-read study found that roughly 600 people were dying on a yearly basis and another 740 were being seriously injured in motorcycle accidents simply because they were not wearing helmets at the time of the crash.

While a death can devastate a family, surviving a serious motorcycle accident with devastating, lifelong injuries can make a mark that simply can't be erased. Not only do the actual victims have to live with the pain and decreased quality of life but their family has to help bear the burden of their care and absorb much of the financial impact of their accident.

Legislatures took it upon themselves to pass this law in order to not only protect citizens in the event of a crash but also reduce the financial impact these accidents had on individuals, insurance companies, state agencies, and any party that might be involved.

Did the Helmet Law Work?

Indeed, one year after the helmet law in California went into effect, the number of people who died as a result of motorcycle accidents in the state dropped by 37%.

That equals an estimated 230 people per year who were saved because they chose to wear a motorcycle helmet (either of their own accord or because the law stated they must). That amounts to an economic impact in the millions of dollars per year and a real emotional impact for hundreds of families.

While some motorcycle "purists" many argue that the decrease could have been related to any number of factors independent of helmet use, additional studies have found that wearing protective gear (including helmets) can indeed decrease the rider's risk of serious injury, which includes brain injuries in motorcycle accidents, by over 80%.  

The Mandatory Universal Helmet Law in California

California Vehicle Code Section 27803 is the section most are referring to when they quote the California motorcycle helmet law. This part of the CVC specifically states that all motorcycle operators and passengers must wear helmets whenever they ride. But if you think you can squeak out from under the law by buying a scooter, moped, or other alternatives, you need to read the whole law.

Indeed, this particular legislation goes even further to mandate helmet use for those riding "non-traditional" motorcycles such as motor-driven bicycles and any form of motorized bike.

This law even applies to children 8 years old and older who ride as passengers on motorcycles. (Children under 8 years old may not legally ride on motorcycles in California.)

Penalties for Not Wearing a Helmet

So now you know you have to wear a helmet in California, but how serious can not wearing one be?

Despite the mandatory helmet law, motorcyclist deaths from not wearing a helmet in California increased 9 percent from 23 in 2015 to 25 in 2016.

And, setting aside the increased risk of death and disastrous injuries, the legal penalties for being caught not wearing a motorcycle helmet while riding in California can include being issued a fine.

Indeed, the California Highway Patrol has interpreted key sections of the California Vehicle Code (specifically section 27803) to mean that riding without a helmet is punishable by citation. That opinion has been upheld many times by multiple courts in California though some still argue that failure to wear a helmet should be considered an equipment violation which can be corrected to avoid paying a fine.

This opinion that violations are indeed punishable by fines falls in line with national motorcycle helmet laws.

What Specifications Does the California Motorcycle Helmet Law Include?

In addition to simply requiring all passengers and operators to wear helmets, the California motorcycle helmet law also dictates what type of helmets qualify as personal protective gear. In short, these state regulations fall in line with national DOT requirements and include:

  • Being manufactured with an inner liner at least an inch thick that's made from polystyrene foam
  • Having secure chin straps riveted to the outer shell of the helmet.
  • Weighing at least three pounds
  • Motorcycle
    Being designed without protrusions of more than two-tenths of an inch from the shell

These material requirements of the California motorcycle helmet law closely mirror national DOT standards for motorcycle helmets.

Does the California Motorcycle Helmet Law State How the Helmet is to Be Worn?

Yes. There is no "wiggle room" the way the California Vehicle Code is written as it pertains to motorcycle helmets. Section 27803(e) states that helmets must be worn on the head at all times with the chin strap securely fastened by rivets to the outer shell. In addition, the fit of the helmet must be as such that it dramatically limits the ability of the safety device to wobble or slide while it's on the motorcyclist's head.

You can't simply drop a helmet atop your head and take off. Doing so could be seen as an intentional attempt to skirt the law and would likely result in some sort of citation should you be stopped by a police officer.

Does California's Motorcycle Helmet Law Affect Motorcycle Accident Liability?

No, not in most motorcycle accident cases. California is a comparative negligence state. That means the legal liability (thus financial responsibility) for a motorcycle accident can be assigned to any party involved in the accident based on a percentage of the whole. That means a motorcycle operator could be assigned a portion of the liability for the accident they were involved in, however, whether or not they were wearing a helmet at the time of the crash would not likely factor into that calculation.

The only instance in which helmet use might play a part in assigning liability is if a child who was under the care of an adult motorcycle operator was injured in an accident and they were not wearing a helmet at the time. It is the adult's responsibility to ensure that the child is properly protected and if they fail in that regard, they could be held at least partially responsible for that dependent's injuries.

Does California's Motorcycle Helmet Law Affect the Size of Your Motorcycle Accident Settlement?

Well, it depends. As stated above, the liability (or fault) for your accident isn't affected by failure to wear a helmet in California. However, if you are seriously injured in a motorcycle accident and intend to bring a claim for damages (ask for money to pay for your injuries and damages) not abiding by the California motorcycle helmet law may significantly affect the amount of your compensation from your motorcycle accident claim.

For instance, if you are claiming any facial or head injuries, such as a traumatic brain injury (TBI) from your motorcycle accident, the insurance carrier may have a defense to paying the full amount of your medical care and damages. This is because everyone has a duty to mitigate their damages in a personal injury case. This means that if your injuries/damages would have been less if you were wearing a helmet (which is required by law) you may not be entitled to compensation for those damage that were the result of you riding without a helmet. However, if you have a really experience motorcycle accident lawyer, they should be able to make some solid arguments that none of your injuries (even those that could have been prevented by wearing a helmet) would never have been caused if it wasn't for the at-fault party's negligence.

Understanding How California's Motorcycle Helmet Law Can Affect Your Recovery

You don't need a lawyer to help you interpret the exact rule of California's motorcycle helmet law—it's pretty straight forward:  if you ride, you need to wear a helmet. However, it may be necessary to seek professional legal help if you've been injured in a motorcycle accident because the financial recovery process can often be long and convoluted.

While your ability to seek financial support from at fault parties may not be directly affected by your use of a motorcycle helmet, aggressive insurance adjusters and lawyers for at-fault parties could use your neglect for California motorcycle laws to paint you in a negative light. Motorcyclists already have a hard enough time overcoming the stigma associated with being "bikers" when it comes to proving their need as victims in crashes. Anything that can help shed that disingenuous portrayal can't hurt your case.

If you've been injured, consult with an experienced motorcycle accident attorney in California to learn your rights and the expectations put on you during the recovery process.