There is no debate that helmets save lives, especially among motorcyclists. Bikers are generally comfortable with a certain level of risk, and there is a pervading belief among bikers that it’s a matter of when, not if, a rider will be thrown from their bike. There are numerous risks that motorcyclists incur while on the road that other drivers don’t have to contend with. Motorcycles are less stable, harder to see, and offer little protection in the event of a crash. From a safety standpoint, then, it makes sense that bikers would protect themselves with a helmet. But from a legal standpoint, do you have to wear a motorcycle helmet in Texas? The answer: Yes, it’s the law.
Helmets are Life Savers
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, helmets are approximately 37% effective at protecting against biker and rider fatalities. In other words, for every 100 motorcyclists not wearing a helmet who are killed in an accident, 37 would have survived if they had been wearing a helmet. And also according to the NHTSA, helmets reduce the rate of brain injuries by about 67%, significantly improving crash outcomes for the cyclist.
An in-depth study regarding motorcycle safety was published in 1981, titled Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures Volume 1: Technical Report. Given the study’s primary author, H.H. Hurt, its subject matter has been referred to as the “Hurt Report.”. The Hurt Report is still considered a primary safety resource, and confirms the importance of wearing a helmet while on the road.
The Hurt Report studied thousands of helmets that had been involved in an accident, and noted where they had sustained the most damage. What the researchers found was that 30% of all head impacts occur from the chin to the forehead. Obviously, striking pavement at high speeds is bad enough, but when it’s the face or forehead hitting the ground at high speeds, the resulting injuries can be catastrophic.
Most motorcyclists, though, don’t need to be convinced that a helmet is a critical piece of protective wear. What is less clear, though, is what Texas laws have to say about helmets.
Texas Motorcycle Helmet Law Specifics
Helmet laws have generally changed in response to trends in motorcycle deaths, either positively or negatively, across the entire nation. It’s also true of Texas, which has altered the laws on the books a few times in the past 40 years.
Before going into Texas motorcycle helmet law, though, it’s helpful to know what motorcycle fatality trends have looked like across the state. In the late 70s to the mid-80s, more than 4,000 motorcyclists were killed every year, a number that was, and still is, considered tragically high. This number, probably at least in part due to new legislation, dropped quickly from the mid-80s all the way to the year 2000, when it began spiking again. This latest rise in motorcycle fatalities has plateaued, but it shows no sign of returning to 90s levels.
That high, low, high trend has mirrored the state of Texas helmet laws to an extent, which shouldn’t be a surprise. When the law is tougher, more people wear their helmets, and when the law is more relaxed, fewer people wear them.
But as for the law itself, this is how it has evolved with time:
On January 1, 1968, Texas began enforcing its first universal helmet law. Like the term suggests, the law required all cyclists, regardless of age and experience level, to wear a helmet at all times while biking. This universal law also covered riders.
On August 29, 1977, Texas reworked the universal law so that only cyclists 17 and under were required to wear a helmet.
On September 1, 1989, Texas reinstated its universal law to cover all cyclists.
On September 1, 1997, Texas again reworked its universal law, so that any driver over 21 could be exempt from wearing a helmet if they maintained $10,000 worth of medical insurance or if they completed a motorcycle education course. If a cyclist was qualified for helmet exemption through either means, they were required to wear a sticker that could be easily identified by police.
Finally, on September 1, 2009, Texas once again modified its helmet law, removing the $10,000 medical insurance minimum and the sticker requirement. Instead, any biker over 21 just has to have proof of insurance through an applicable medical plan, or they may still opt for the motorcycle education course option. As part of the update, police are no longer allowed to pull motorcyclists over for the sole purpose of verifying whether or not a motorcyclist has fulfilled these requirements.
If that seems like a lot of changes, that’s because it is. Few states have modified their helmet laws as much as Texas, which may be due to a number of reasons. Texas always ranks at the top, or near it, in terms of fatal vehicle accidents every year, including fatal accidents due to alcohol use. This is true when it comes to motorcycle accidents as well, as according to the NHTSA’s 2011 data, Texas led the entire nation in motorcycle accident fatalities. It’s reasonable to believe, then, that when there are large swings in national motorcycle accident fatalities, Texas authorities notice those swings before most other states do.
The constant push and pull of state helmet laws, and not just in Texas, is also influenced by the ebb and flow of politics. There are several powerful cyclist groups, including the American Motorcyclist Association and the Motorcycle Riders Foundation, which have succeeded in rolling back helmet laws, and the current pattern is for states to back away from universal helmet requirements and allow older riders to make the decision for themselves. It’s worth noting that these aren’t random groups of motorcyclists, but well-funded special interest groups. For example, the American Motorcyclist Association counts Harley-Davidson, Yamaha, Honda, Kawasaki, and Suzuki among its corporate partners, and has spent nearly $4 million on lobbying Congress over the past decade.
Clearly, motorcyclists, safety advocates, and lawmakers are engaged in a tug of war over helmet laws, and it’s a pattern that doesn’t have an end in sight. But what about injury liability? How do these laws intersect with injury lawsuits? As it turns out, the two are heavily linked.
Helmets and Liability
When a cyclist is hit by another driver, the fault often lies with the other driver. Motorcycles are difficult to see, so motorists frequently sideswipe them while changing lanes or collide with them head on while attempting dangerous turns. Even at low speeds, these accidents are an immediate threat to the biker’s life, as a motorcycle offers no protection during a crash. In fact, the NHTSA states that mile for mile, a motorcyclist is 27 times more likely to be killed in an accident. There’s a reason why some hospital personnel refer to motorcycles as “donorcycles.”
But just because cyclists face additional danger on the road doesn’t mean they are always awarded compensation in the event of an accident. Even when the accident is clearly the fault of another motorist, the cyclist may have trouble recovering compensation if they were not protecting themselves at the time of the crash.
It’s a legal principle applicable in some states known as “comparative negligence.” Put simply, comparative negligence means that the victim was also partially responsible for their injuries, and will only receive partial compensation as a result. It’s a relevant concept when considering motorcycle accident injuries.
In Texas, cyclists over 21 years of age may not be required to wear a helmet if they have attained an exemption through training or through an insurance plan. However, this doesn’t protect a cyclist from comparative negligence arguments that their failure to protect themselves with a helmet should limit, if not bar, their recovery—especially where there has been an injury to the head or neck.
A life-saving piece of equipment, and a source of controversy, helmets will likely remain the subject of motorcycle legislation for the foreseeable future. But whether a cyclist considers a helmet to be essential or burdensome, the decision to wear one, or not to wear one, can have major consequences.