Motorcycle Helmets

Motorcycle Helmet Laws

In 2013, motorcyclists represented 14 percent of the total traffic fatalities, yet accounted for only 3 percent of all registered vehicles in the United States.

When crashes occur, motorcyclists need adequate head protection to prevent one of the leading causes of death and disability in America — head injuries. Motorcycle helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 69 percent and reduce the risk of death by 42 percent.

According to a 2012 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, “laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear helmets are the only strategy proved to be effective in reducing motorcyclist fatalities.” In fact, in states without an all-rider helmet law, 59 percent of the motorcyclists killed were not wearing helmets, as opposed to only 8 percent in states with all-rider helmet laws in 2013.

Motorcycle Helmet Safety Standards

In addition to laws governing the wearing of motorcycle helmets, there also are safety standards mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) that require helmets to meet a minimum level of performance.

All motorcycle helmets sold in the United States are evaluated by the DOT according to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 218, and must meet certain standards for providing protection for the head and brain in the event of a crash. Many states also have laws requiring the use of helmets that meet the FMVSS 218 standard.

Unfortunately, there are always those who try to game the system, and put sub-par or even counterfeit products on the market that appear to meet safety standards, but which are actually woefully in adequate.

An investigative news program in the UK, Fake Britain, recently examined a similar issue across the pond. Researchers from the program uncovered a number of helmets whose labeling indicated they were phony, and subsequent tests revealed they were dangerously defective. Watch their report here:

Even when manufacturers or distributors are not intentionally trying to deceive customers, they may cut corners or overlook design issues that may ultimately cause a helmet to fail.

How can you protect yourself?

The DOT provides some tips for identifying so-called “novelty” helmets that do not meet minimum safety standards. First and foremost, helmets that meet FMVSS 218 must have a sticker on the outside back of the helmet with the letters “DOT,” which certifies that the helmet meets or exceeds FMVSS 218. It is important to note that some novelty helmet sellers provide DOT stickers separately for motorcyclists to place on non-complying helmets. In this case, the DOT sticker is invalid and does not certify compliance.

A safe helmet also may have a certification label inside it from an independent non-profit organization that reviews helmets and sets voluntary safety standards. These may include the Snell Foundation or the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The Snell Memorial Foundation is a private not-for-profit organization that sets voluntary standards for motorcycle helmets, bicycle helmets and auto racing helmets, as well as other kinds of protective headgear. Snell Standards are the world’s toughest.

Both Snell and DOT test helmets using impact testing. The following video demonstrates impact testing:

Finally, manufacturers also are required under FMVSS 218 to place a label on or inside the helmet stating the manufacturer’s name, model, size, month and year of manufacture, construction materials, and other information. If the helmet is not in compliance, it will usually not have this label.

Motorcycle Helmet Construction

In addition to looking for compliance stickers, the DOT recommends that consumers examine a helmet before buying and look for various elements in its construction that indicate it is well made. These include a thick inner liner, usually about one inch thick of firm polystyrene foam; sturdy chin straps and rivets; proper weight – a FMVSS 218 compliant helmet will usually weigh about three pounds; and the style of the helmet. For more information, visit

In order to learn more about motorcycle helmet construction, this is a great video providing information about helmet design and manufacture:

You also should take into account how well a helmet fits you personally. Even a well-made and FMVSS 218 compliant helmet will not do a good job of keeping you safe if it fits awkwardly, is hard to see out of, difficult for you to adjust, or it doesn’t suit your usage.

Annually, motorcycle crashes cost $12.9 billion in economic impacts, and $66 billion in societal harm as measured by comprehensive costs based on 2010 data. Compared to other motor vehicle crashes, these costs are disproportionately caused by fatalities and serious injuries. By an overwhelming majority (80 percent), Americans favor state laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear helmets.

Motorcycle Safety Data

  • In 2013, 4,668 were killed in motorcycle crashed in the U.S.
  • In 2013, 88,000 additional motorcyclists were injured.
  • The number of motorcycle crash fatalities has more than doubled since a low of 2,116 motorcycle crash deaths in 1997
  • Motorcycle-related deaths have increased by 55% since 2000
  • In 2010, more than half the people killed in motorcycle crashes were 40 or older, up from 25% in 1995
  • While only 10% of riders killed in motorcycle crashes in 2010 were women, almost all passengers (89%) killed in motorcycle crashes were women.
  • Forty-one percent of motorcycle operators and 50% of motorcycle passengers who died in 2010 were not wearing a helmet
  • More people are killed in motorcycle crashes on rural roads now than 20 years ago. Roughly half of all crashes take place on rural roads
  • The majority of people who die in crashes are riding sport motorcycles with mid-size engines designed to maximize speed and agility

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) with motorcycle ownership at an all-time high, motorcycle-related deaths and traumatic brain injuries are expected to remain at high levels unless more effective protective measures are enacted.