1.3 Motorcycle Helmet Law Enforcement: Noncompliant Helmets
Overall Effectiveness Concerns: The effectiveness of an enforcement program on noncompliant helmet use has not been evaluated.
LEOs in universal helmet law States easily can observe and cite motorcycle riders not wearing helmets. This deterrent to non-use likely explains why helmet use rates are high in universal helmet law States (the Motorcycle Safety chapter, Section 1.1). In addition, many States require motorcyclists to wear helmets that comply with FMVSS 218, and 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. The prioritized recommendations of the National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety lists effective strategies to increase the use of FMVSS 218-compliant helmets as a high priority item (NHTSA, 2013). Use of noncompliant helmets increased slightly from 7% in 2017 to 9% of all riders in 2018 according to a nationally representative observational survey of helmet use (NCSA, 2019). Use of compliant helmets increased from 65% in 2017 to 71% in 2018.
Motorcycle riders wearing noncompliant helmets are essentially no safer than if they wore no helmets at all. NHTSA tested non-compliant helmets and found that the energy allowed to transfer to the head by the non-compliant helmet gave a 100% probability of fatal head injuries (NHTSA, 2007a). In addition to offering no energy-absorbing materials, a noncompliant helmet often covers only a portion of the rider’s head and has inadequate or unused chin straps so the helmet is not likely to stay on the rider’s head in a crash. Rice et al. (2017) found that riders wearing novelty helmets had 2.26 times the risk of fatal injury compared to wearing a full-face helmet. In addition, not all compliant helmets provide the same level of protection. Brewer et al. (2013) and Rice et al. (2017) found reduced risk of injury to motorcyclists wearing full-face helmets compared to other types of DOT-compliant helmets.
The challenge of motorcycle helmet law enforcement in States requiring FMVSS 218-compliant helmets is to actively identify and cite motorcycle riders wearing noncompliant helmets. Identifying a noncompliant helmet is easier than proving that it is noncompliant. Some noncompliant helmets have spikes or other protrusions, making them fairly easy to identify as noncompliant. Compliant helmets are formally identified by a DOT label on the back of the helmet. However, counterfeit DOT stickers are easily available and are found on many noncompliant helmets (although some noncompliant helmets may have labels that say they are novelty helmets and not motorcycle helmets). As a result of these stickers, it is difficult to enforce a noncompliant helmet citation in some courts (NHCRP, 2008, Strategy E1). In May 2011 NHTSA issued a Final Rule that took effect in May 2013 to strengthen helmet labeling requirements and to make it easier to prove that a helmet is noncompliant. For helmet laws to be effective, such laws must be vigorously enforced, extensively publicized, and adequately funded. NHTSA prepared a video clip for motorcyclists and law enforcement demonstrating how to identify compliant and noncompliant helmets and how to choose a helmet that fits properly (NHTSA, 2006). NHTSA also produced a brochure on how to identify noncompliant helmets (NHTSA, 2014) and provides further information to choose the right fit at www.nhtsa.gov/motorcycle-safety/choose-right-motorcycle-helmet.
Use: Sixteen of 43 States reported to Baer et al. (2010) that they conduct enforcement to identify and cite noncompliant-helmet wearers, but only States having universal helmet laws would implement such programs (19 States and the District of Columbia as of May 2019, IIHS, 2019). In 2007 the New York State Police pilot-tested a motorcycle safety checkpoint enforcement program. In the pilot effort 225 motorcycles of 280 passing through the checkpoint were inspected. Traffic citations were issued to 104 motorcyclists; the most common citation (41 issued) was for operating with a non-compliant helmet (Salmon, 2008).
Effectiveness: The effectiveness of an active helmet law enforcement program on noncompliant helmet use has not been evaluated.
Costs: Since helmet laws can be enforced during regular traffic patrols, the costs will be for training LEOs, prosecutors, and judges to identify noncompliant helmets.
Time to implement: An active helmet-law enforcement program requires planning an effective enforcement strategy, training LEOs to identify noncompliant helmets and to carry out the enforcement, and training for prosecutors and judges to assure that citations will be prosecuted and adjudicated. This training can require 4 to 6 months to implement. Publications are available to help with non-compliant helmet identification, but other program aspects and training may need to be developed or adapted. These elements may require 6 months or longer.