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Universal coverage motorcycle helmet use laws require all motorcycle riders and passengers to wear a helmet. Motorcycle helmets are highly effective in protecting motorcycle riders’ heads in crashes. Research indicates that helmets reduce motorcycle rider fatalities by 22 to 42% and brain injuries by 41 to 69% (Coben et al., 2007; Cummings et al., 2006; Deuterman, 2004; Liu et al., 2008; NHTSA, 2003; NHTSA, 2006; NHTSA, 2019). The first universal helmet law was enacted in 1966 and universal laws were in effect in 47 States and the District of Columbia by 1975. After Federal penalties were eliminated in 1975 for States failing to have a universal law, about half the States repealed their laws. Several States have since reenacted universal helmet laws or enacted partial coverage laws; that is, helmet laws that cover only certain riders.

In addition to the requirement to wear a helmet, many States require motorcyclists to wear helmets that comply with FMVSS 218. Federal regulations require all motorcycle helmets sold in the United States to meet or exceed the FMVSS 218 standards. Helmets that do not meet the FMVSS 218 performance requirements are considered noncompliant.


As of October 2021 there were 18 States and the District of Columbia that have helmet laws that require all motorcycle riders to wear a helmet while riding (IIHS, 2021b). Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire do not have motorcycle helmet laws. The remaining States have laws covering only riders under a specified age, typically 18 or 21. Additionally, 17 States have motorcycle helmet laws that do not cover certain vehicle types, typically lower-powered vehicles like mopeds or scooters.


A systematic review of U.S. motorcycle helmet laws found that States with universal coverage laws: (1) had motorcycle helmet use rates 53 percentage points higher than States with partial coverage or no law; (2) had 29% fewer motorcycle fatalities; and (3) had lower fatality rates per registered motorcycle and per vehicle mile traveled (Guide to Community Preventive Services, 2013). Universal helmet laws are also associated with economic benefits at the societal level due to avoided productivity loss and healthcare costs (Peng et al., 2017). In 2021 observed compliant helmet use was 86.1% across States with universal helmet laws, compared to 53.4% across States with no law or partial coverage laws (NCSA, 2022).

Partial Coverage Helmet Laws

Some States have helmet laws that mandate use only for young riders or riders with inadequate insurance. Helmet use is generally low in these States (GAO, 1991; Olsen et al., 2016; NCSA, 2022). Compared to States with no motorcycle helmet law, States with partial coverage helmet laws have motorcyclist fatality rates that are 7% to 10% lower, however, this is significantly smaller than the 22% to 33% reduction in States with universal helmet laws (Houston & Richardson, 2008). Additionally, while partial coverage helmet laws typically require helmets for young riders, this does not appear to translate into meaningful reductions in young rider fatality rates because it is easy to evade these laws (Brooks et al., 2010; Houston, 2007). For example, when Florida eliminated the requirement that all motorcycle riders 21 and older wear helmets, there was an 81% increase in motorcyclist fatalities (Ulmer & Northrup, 2005). Fatalities even increased among riders under 21 who were still covered by the helmet law.

Uncertified Helmets

Some motorcyclists choose to wear, or unknowingly wear, helmets that are not marketed or sold as FMVSS 218-compliant motorcycle helmets.  These “novelty” helmets do not have the certification label affixed to them as required by FMVSS 218 and would unlikely comply with the performance requirements of FMVSS 218. Nationally, in 2019 FMVSS 218-compliant helmet use was 70.8%, but the use of uncertified novelty helmets increased from 9.0% in 2018 to 12.6% in 2019 (NCSA, 2020). Use of helmets that meet FMVSS 218 is higher in States that require all motorcyclists to wear helmets (86.1%) compared to States with no, or partial coverage, helmet laws (53.4%) (NCSA, 2022).

Motorcycle riders wearing novelty helmets are essentially no safer than if they wore no helmets at all. Rice et al. (2017) found that riders wearing novelty helmets had 2.26 times the risk of fatal injury compared to wearing FMVSS 218-compliant helmets. Novelty helmets do not meet the performance requirements of FMVSS 218 and lack the ability of a helmet to protect the rider in the event of a crash. The availability of novelty helmets and noncompliant helmets on the internet is extensive and is likely to continue to grow. There are many companies importing helmets that do not meet the minimum safety standards of FMVSS 218 that is expected to exacerbate this issue.

According to the National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety, effective strategies to increase the use of FMVSS 218-compliant helmets are a high priority (NHTSA, 2013a). A challenge in States requiring FMVSS 218-compliant helmets is to educate motorcycle riders on how to identify a compliant helmet. Some noncompliant helmets are easily identified. Some examples include helmets that have spikes or other projections, making them easy to identify as noncompliant; labels indicating the helmet is a novelty helmet and not a NMVSS 218 compliant motorcycle helmet; or lack of an impact-attenuating liner is also a visual indication that a helmet would not be able to protect a user in the event of a crash. Compliant helmets are formally identified by a certification label on the back of the helmet that includes the symbol DOT as well as the manufacturer’s name or brand as well as the precise model designation. However, counterfeit DOT stickers are readily available and easy to place on uncertified helmets. In May 2013 NHTSA published an amendment to FMVSS 218 to strengthen helmet labeling requirements, making it easier to identify that a helmet is noncompliant, and improving the ability to enforce helmet laws.

Costs resulting from crashes. Hospital admissions and treatment costs have also increased following repeal of universal helmet laws (Derrick & Faucher, 2009; GAO, 1991; Peng et al., 2017). Almost half of all motorcyclists admitted to hospitals lacked sufficient health care insurance or were covered by government services, so the public ultimately shares many of these costs, as well as a greater long-term burden of care (Derrick & Faucher, 2009; GAO, 1991; NHTSA, 2019; Patel, 2019). In addition, an analysis of insurance claims data found that when Michigan’s helmet law was amended from a universal coverage law to a partial coverage law (effective since April 2012), claims increased by more than 22% compared with control States (HLDI, 2013). Medical costs related to motorcycle crashes are typically higher in States with partial helmet laws. Olsen et al. (2016) reported that median medical costs were 37% lower for emergency department visits and 21% lower for in-patient hospital charges in States with universal helmet laws. The Community Preventive Services Task Force found in their systematic review of 22 studies that universal coverage motorcycle helmet laws resulted in significant economic benefits (Guide to Community Preventive Services, 2013; Peng & Community Preventive Services Task Force, 2017; Peng et al., 2017). These studies show that universal coverage laws provide greater safety and cost benefits than laws that cover only a specific age group or riders having a certain amount of insurance.


Once legislation requiring universal helmet use has been enacted, implementation costs are minimal. Universal helmet use has vocal proponents and detractors that will help to publicize the new law extensively. Motorcycle helmet laws can be enforced during regular traffic patrol operations because helmet use is easily observed.

Time to implement:

A universal helmet use law can be implemented as soon as the law is enacted; however, enacting such a law is complex and time-consuming, and may require people to galvanize support within a State to pass legislation.

Other considerations:

  • Opposition to motorcycle helmet laws: Any effort to enact a universal helmet law can expect immediate, well-coordinated, and highly political opposition (NHTSA, 2003). Helmet law opponents claim that helmet laws impinge on individual rights. They also claim that helmets interfere with motorcycle riders’ vision or hearing, though research shows that these effects are minimal (NHTSA, 1996). See Jones and Bayer (2007) for a history of opposition to helmet laws in the United States. Derrick and Faucher (2009) also discuss national policy, organized opposition, and helmet law changes over 4 decades.
  • Compliance benefits from enacting other safety laws: Helmet law compliance has been shown to benefit from the enactment and enforcement of other motorcycle safety laws. In 2007 existing motorcycle safety laws in Puerto Rico were augmented to reduce the legal BAC limit to .02 g/dL, and require motorcycle riders to wear protective safety apparel, along with other requirements. One benefit of the amended law was that the use of DOT-compliant motorcycle helmets increased, even though helmet laws already existed (Fell et al., 2017). From 2006 to 2007 Puerto Rico riders’ use of DOT-compliant motorcycle helmets rose from 39.4% to 56.4% and continued to increase to greater than 70% three years later. Observed DOT-compliant helmet use reached 86%, 4 years after the 2007 Puerto Rico law change.