Is It Illegal To Cycle Without A Helmet

Last week, we looked at some of the laws surrounding the construction and testing of helmets. In the United States, it wasn’t until the late 90’s that we began to codify helmet safety for cyclists.

Crash Statistics

According to the most recent data, at least 60% of the fatal cycling crashes are not wearing a helmet. Only 16% of the fatalities were wearing a helmet.

(24% of the crashes did not have helmet data).

It is important not over to infer data that has not been measured, but, at the surface level, it appears that helmets may help preserve the lives of cyclists. (The Guardian has no qualms about crunching the numbers, stating that it reduces the risk of fatal head injury by 65%)

Finally, cycling is the leading cause of sports-related head injuries, according to the American Association of Neurologic Surgeons, beating our both football and boxing.

Head injuries are no laughing matter.

No US Federal Law

It makes sense that there is no federal law regarding helmets. Cyclists mostly fall outside of the range of “interstate commerce.” In fact, we aren’t even allowed to ride on the interstate!

Helmet safety standards — the quality of the helmet — is set at the federal level, but whether or not you a re required to protect yourself is left up to the individual cities — or states — to set.

Laws Mostly Set At The City Level

States haven’t been too motivated to take up the issue, leaving it to local municipalities to set the laws and enforce them.

This makes plenty of sense, as a law is only as good as its enforcement. If a local community does not have a problem with head injuries from cyclists or does not have the resources to make sure cyclists obey a law, there is no reason to add restriction to the books.

Figuring out where your city stands on the issue can be challenging. There is a municode website that displays the laws for many small communities.

Their website is confusing so that you may find a call to City
Hall might be the easiest way to figure out what your restrictions are.

Another resource is the American league of cyclists. They do a better job keeping up with the laws. However, there is no way for them to be aware of every change. So reach out to your local community leaders for the most up-to-date information.

Many of the laws are only for children under the ages of 18 or 16. So a parent who allows their kid to ride around the block without a helmet because “that’s the way I was raised” could find themselves having an uncomfortable conversation with a police officer.


Self-Policing Is Strong

You will find that most cycling events require you to have a helmet. Forgetting your helmet precludes you from participating in many club rides, local races, and even parades.

While many of these rules are in place to protect the event organizers, this attitude of self-policing extends to individual riders. There are many who will openly question your decision to ride without a helmet, and I’ve even seen riders ostracized because others felt like their decision to ride helmetless was inherently unsafe.

After all, none of us want to be the one holding your brains while you writhe in agony. And that is an all-too-real picture for many of us.

This acknowledgment within the community of a bike helmet’s importance has done as much to further the implementation of helmet laws could.

In fact, a study in Canada measured the impact of mandatory helmet laws and found that they did not decrease the risk of head injury compared to jurisdictions which did not have helmet laws on the books.

A Generational Change

Millenials tend to be a very safety-conscious bunch, choosing to avoid cigarettes and buy organic.

If you set helmet laws, they might rebel against the law. However, they do prefer a safer option, especially when the statistics back them up.

International Law

From what I can gather, mandatory helmet laws do not exist in the British Isles. They seem to have more grassroots movement to make it mandatory, but so far, the research they have uncovered seems to either be inconclusive or does not demonstrate a greater benefit from wearing a helmet.

Are Helmets Safe Enough?

One of the things to consider is whether helmets offer sufficient protection. After all, we are riding with a styrofoam cup on our heads. Is that truly enough to protect us?

Having experienced concussions with and without the helmet, I’m going to lean in favor of wearing a helmet out of choice. And my children will wear helmets.

But for now, wearing a helmet is mostly your right to choose — unless you are riding with me.


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