California's Motorcycle Helmet Laws
California's Motorcycle Helmet Laws

1.       Does California have motorcycle helmet laws?

Yes, California has laws that apply to riders and passengers of motorcycles, motor-driven cycles, and motorized bicycles.

California’s motorcycle helmet laws are some of the most stringent in the nation, applying to all motorcycle riders and passengers regardless of age.  Such helmet laws are known as “universal” helmet laws.

Other states, like Michigan and Florida, require helmets for motorcycle riders and passengers under 21 years old.  Still others, like Arizona and Hawaii, require helmets for motorcycle riders and passengers under 18 years old.  Only a few states, including Iowa, Illinois, and New Hampshire have no helmet laws whatsoever.

Determining which helmet laws apply in a situation generally depends on the type of vehicle being used, the age of the rider, and the setting in which the riding occurs.

2.       What are California’s motorcycle helmet laws?

In general, all motorcycle riders and passengers are required to wear a U.S. DOT compliant motorcycle safety helmet when riding a motorcycle, motor-driven cycle, or motorized bicycle on public roads.[1]

California Vehicle Code section 27803 provides in part:

  • A driver and any passenger shall wear a safety helmet meeting [federal] requirements . . . when riding on a motorcycle, motor-driven cycle, or motorized bicycle.
  • It is unlawful to operate a motorcycle, motor-driven cycle, or motorized bicycle if the driver or any passenger is not wearing a safety helmet as required by subdivision (a).
  • It is unlawful to ride as a passenger on a motorcycle, motor-driven cycles, or motorized bicycle if the driver or any passenger is not wearing a safety helmet as required by subdivision (a).
  • This section applies to persons who are riding on motorcycles, motor-driven cycles, or motorized bicycles operated on the highways.
  • For the purposes of this section, “wear a safety helmet” or “wearing a safety helmet” means having a safety helmet meeting the [federal] requirements . . . on the person’s head that is fastened with the helmet straps and that is of a size that fits the wearing person’s head securely without excessive lateral or vertical movement.
  • This section does not apply to a person operating, or riding as a passenger in, a fully enclosed three-wheeled motor vehicle . . . .
  • In enacting this section, it is the intent of the Legislature to ensure that all persons are provided with an additional safety benefit while operating or riding a motorcycle, motor-driven cycle, or motorized bicycle.

In terms of the federal requirements for helmet specifications, helmets must be certified by the manufacturer stating the helmet complies with U.S. DOT Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 218.[2]

In sum, to comply with California law, motorcycle riders and passengers on public roadways must wear a properly-fitting, U.S.-DOT-certified helmet, which is securely fastened to the head.

3.       Why does California have such strict helmet laws?

Head injuries account for the majority of serious and fatal motorcyclist injuries and, with few exceptions, head injuries are reduced by properly wearing a motorcycle safety helmet.[3]

Here are some facts to consider:

  • Most collisions happen on short trips (less than five miles long).
  • Most riders are riding slower than 30 mph when a collision occurs.  At these speeds, a U.S.-DOT-compliant motorcycle safety helmet can cut both the number and the severity of head injuries by 50%.
  • A non-U.S.-DOT-compliant helmet generally has very thin liners and protective padding.  These types of helmets lack the strength, size, and ability to protect the rider during a collision.
  • A non-U.S.-DOT compliant helmet may look like U.S.-DOT-compliant helmets and may be sold alongside U.S.-DOT-compliant helmets. Make sure the U.S.-DOT-certification is on the helmet you wish to purchase. Non-U.S.-DOT-compliant helmets may be referred to as novelty helmets, rain bonnets, lids, loophole lids, beanies, or brain buckets.[4]

In a collision, regardless of speed, riders wearing a U.S.-DOT-compliant motorcycle safety helmet are three times more likely to survive a head injury than if not wearing a U.S.-DOT-compliant motorcycle safety helmet.

Complying with helmet laws may also ensure that riders who are injured by others get maximum compensation for their injuries.  In other words, motorcycle riders and passengers who do not wear a helmet may be at a disadvantage if they are injured by someone else, and are later forced to file a lawsuit.

4.       What is comparative fault?

When it comes to negligence, the key question in court cases is whether the defendant behaved unreasonably and, in so doing, caused harm to the plaintiff.  The other side of this coin, however, is the question of whether the plaintiff also behaved unreasonably, thus contributing to their own harm.  If so, then the law may put a limit on the plaintiff’s money damages.  This is called the doctrine of comparative fault.

The comparative fault doctrine “is a flexible, commonsense concept, under which a jury properly may consider and evaluate the relative responsibility of various parties for an injury . . . in order to arrive at an equitable apportionment or allocation of loss.”[5]

Thus, if a defense lawyer proves a plaintiff was responsible for contributing to their own harm, the jury is instructed to reduce the plaintiff’s money damages by the percentage of the plaintiff’s responsibility for their own harm.[6] 

For example, if a plaintiff’s total damages (for medical bills, lost income, pain and suffering) were $1,000,000 in a negligence case, and the jury found the defendant 75% responsible, and the plaintiff 25% responsible for their own injuries, then the plaintiff’s damages would be reduced by 25%, for a total of $750,000.

With that in mind, it is easy to see how a defense lawyer might argue that an injured motorcycle rider or passenger who was not wearing a helmet should be held responsible for any harm that a helmet could have prevented.  If you are faced with such a scenario, consulting with an experienced motorcycle accident attorney can help in determining how best to present the facts of your case in court.

5.       What is the duty to mitigate damages?

As just discussed, the law generally requires people to behave reasonably if they want to recover money damages for injuries caused by someone else’s harmful conduct.  Another legal rule says that an injured person might be prevented from recovering damages the plaintiff could have prevented through reasonable efforts.  This is known as the doctrine of mitigation of damages.

Under this doctrine, “A plaintiff cannot be compensated for damages which [they] could have avoided by reasonable effort or expenditures.”[7]  In other words, “[a] wrongdoer is not required to compensate the injured party for damages which are avoidable by reasonable effort on the latter’s part.”[8]

As such, in a court trial, the jury may be asked to “consider the reasonableness of [the plaintiff]’s efforts in light of the circumstances facing [the plaintiff] at the time, including [their] ability to make the efforts or expenditures without undue risk or hardship.”[9]

With that in mind, it is easy to see how a defense lawyer might argue that an injured motorcycle rider should not be compensated for damages that could have been avoided through the use of a helmet.  If you are faced with such a scenario, consulting with one of our experienced motorcycle accident lawyers may be help in determining how best to present the facts of your case.

6.       How to choose a motorcycle helmet?

When deciding what type of a motorcycle helmet to acquire, key factors to consider are the shape, size, style, and safety rating of the helmet.[10]

There are a multitude of helmet styles, ranging from half helmets to full-face helmets, with modular helmets in between.

The full-face helmet with a lock-in visor, offers the best coverage and protection to the back sides of the head.

There are also, unfortunately, unsafe helmets being sold on the market.[11]  While all motorcycle helmets sold in the U.S. are required to meet federal standards, some retailers sell “novelty helmets” that do not meet safety standards.  There are also fake DOT labels being sold to put on these unsafe helmets.   These helmets generally will not protect riders or passengers in the event of a motorcycle crash.

7.       How to make the most of a motorcycle helmet?

Whichever style chosen, a helmet provides the most protection when it:

  • Meets U.S. DOT safety standards and has the manufacturer-applied DOT lettering on the back of the helmet.  (The DOT lettering should not be a stick-on label or easily removed.)
  • Fits snugly, all the way around.
  • Has no obvious defects such as cracks, loose padding, or frayed straps.
  • Is securely fastened on the head when riding.[12]

8.       Are bicyclists required to wear bike helmets?

Unlike motorcycle helmets, California does not have a universal bike helmet law.  While some cities in California have more strict requirements, at the state level, the requirement to wear a bike helmet generally only applies to those under 18 years old.

The law provides:

“A person under 18 years of age shall not operate a bicycle, a non-motorized scooter, or a skateboard, nor wear in-line or roller skates, nor ride upon a bicycle, a non-motorized scooter, or a skateboard as a passenger, upon a street, bikeway . . . or any other public bicycle path or trail unless that person is wearing a properly fitted and fastened bicycle helmet that meets the standards of either the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) or the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), or standards subsequently established by those entities.  This requirement also applies to a person who rides upon a bicycle while in a restraining seat that is attached to the bicycle or in a trailer towed by the bicycle.”[13]

9.       What if someone has been in a motorcycle or bicycle accident?

If you have been injured in a motorcycle or bicycle accident because someone else was driving negligently or recklessly, you may have a legal claim.

Whether you drive a car or ride a motorcycle or bike, if you have been seriously injured because of someone else’s misconduct, the San Diego motorcycle accident lawyers at Singleton Schreiber may be able to secure compensation for you from those who harmed you.

You may have insurance agents or defense lawyers trying to contact you.  Remember you do not have to speak with these individuals before you get the chance to first consult with a lawyer of your own.  The process can be overwhelming for individuals not used to dealing with accident attorneys and large corporations.  It helps to go into these situations with a good understanding of your potential legal claims, as well as a good understanding of how much money you should receive as compensation for your injuries.

We invite you to call Singleton Schreiber to consult with one of our experienced California personal injury lawyers.

Author: Domenic Martini (Associate Attorney)

[1] California Vehicle Code § 27803

[2] California Vehicle Code § 27802


[4] Id.

[5]  Pfeifer v. John Crane, Inc., 220 Cal. App. 4th 1270, 1285 (2013).

[6] CACI No. 405.

[7] Green v. Smith, 261 Cal. App. 2d 392, 396 (1968).

[8] Id.

[9] CACI No. 3930.


[11] Id.


[13] California Vehicle Code § 21212.

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