Yes, they do. The evidence is overwhelming that properly fitting, industry-standard helmets can entirely prevent head injuries or dramatically reduce their severity in motorcycle and bicycle accidents. Or, to put it more simply, wearing a helmet can save your life.
Read on if you are interested in learning more about helmet safety, helmet laws, and how an experienced motorcycle accident lawyer can help you after a crash (whether you were wearing a helmet or not).
Helmet Effectiveness 101
The effectiveness of helmets in preventing head injuries isn’t up for debate. Study after study has confirmed that wearing a helmet makes you less likely to suffer any head injury and reduces the severity of an injury you suffer in a crash. This is true for motorcycle and bicycle helmets provided the helmet fits properly and meets minimum quality and design standards.
Motorcycle Helmets Prevent Head Injury
A comprehensive review of 61 studies on motorcycle helmet effectiveness concluded that helmets reduce the risk of suffering a head injury by 69 percent. That finding mirrors numerous other results from studies conducted worldwide. Again and again, researchers have confirmed that the risk of head injury drops dramatically when motorcyclists wear helmets.
And that’s not all. The same review concluded that helmet use also reduces the risk of death in a crash by 42 percent. And the severity of head injuries that do occur also drops dramatically with motorcycle helmet use.
Bicycle Helmets Prevent Head Injury
Extensive research has reached the same conclusion about bicycle helmets.
A recent meta-analysis of 55 studies on bicycle helmet effectiveness found that wearing a helmet reduces:
- Head injury by 48 percent,
- Serious head injury by 60 percent, and
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI) by 53 percent.
As with motorcycle helmets, wearing a bicycle helmet has broader benefits beyond preventing head injury. The same meta-analysis found that helmet use also reduces face injury by 23 percent and death or serious injury by 34 percent in a bicycle crash.
The Importance of Proper Fit, Design, and Quality
Motorcycle and bicycle helmets work most effectively when they fit properly and meet basic design and quality standards. Studies have shown that poor fit or quality, or wearing a helmet unsuited for a particular activity, can result in decreased effectiveness. For example, bicycle helmets work to protect your head in a bicycle crash, but they will not work well in a motorcycle accident.
According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), a properly fitted motorcycle helmet should match the shape of your head, not your face. Helmets come in three basic head shapes: round oval, intermediate oval (the most common), and long oval. The helmet should also be the right size, which you’ll know if the helmet fits snugly without pressure points and does not move when you shake your head.
It’s also critical to choose a quality helmet designed for motorcycling. A helmet meets safety standards if it’s marked with a symbol showing that it complies with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 218. Full-face models offer the greatest protection from head and facial injury among DOT-compliant helmets.
Fitting a bicycle helmet follows basically the same approach as a motorcycle helmet. According to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, the right bike helmet for you should match the shape of your head, feel snug, sit level, and remain stable when your head shakes. It should also meet the United States Consumer Protect Safety Commission (CPSC) helmet safety standard; if it does, it will have a CPSC sticker inside. Buy your bicycle helmet now—you don’t need to spend a lot to get quality—and replace it after it’s been in a crash.
How do helmets work?
We’ve established that helmets work in preventing head injuries. But how do they do it? Without getting into the deep physics of helmet engineering, helmets prevent head injuries by absorbing and redirecting the force of an impact and being a physical barrier between your head and the road surface.
In a typical bike or motorcycle crash, a rider gets thrown to the ground or against a vehicle. The rider’s head often takes a direct blow or series of blows. Each blow can potentially cause a traumatic brain injury (TBI) by shaking, rotating, or deforming the brain inside the skull.
A helmet reduces that risk in two ways. First, the foam and padding in a helmet absorb the blow by compacting, slowing the deceleration of the head by a few milliseconds in much the same way braking slows a car. That makes for a less-violent jolt to the head, translating into less force acting on the brain. Second, the helmet redistributes the force of the impact over a wider area of the head, essentially dulling the blow. The combined effect of these features is roughly akin to the difference between getting hit in the head with a 1-pound hammer versus a 1-pound memory foam pillow.
And that’s not the only way helmets protect you from a head injury. Riders frequently slide along the ground after being thrown from the saddle. They risk sustaining severe lacerations and abrasions to their head and face without a helmet. With a helmet, they have some protection from injuries and disfiguring scars that can accompany them.
Motorcycle Helmet Laws
Motorcycle helmet use is largely a matter of state law. As of late 2022, 18 states require all motorcyclists to wear helmets. Twenty-nine states (including Arizona) require some motorcyclists to wear helmets based on the rider’s age. And just three states—Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire—have no motorcycle helmet laws.
Motorcycle laws can and do change. Until the mid-1970s, nearly all states mandated motorcycle helmet use for all riders. But many states at least partially repealed those requirements once the federal government no longer required them as a condition of receiving federal highway funding.
Today, however, as evidence has piled up that universal helmet laws significantly reduce motorcycle crash deaths and injuries, some states have begun to reconsider or modify their relaxed helmet requirements. For example, riders over age 21 in Florida, Kentucky, Michigan, and Texas, and over age 26 in Missouri, can ride without a helmet if they carry medical insurance to cover their care if they crash or, in Texas, if they take a safety course.
To find out the current state of motorcycle helmet laws in your state, check out the up-to-date summaries at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) websites or the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA).
Bicycle Helmet Laws
A mixture of state and local laws governs bicycle helmet use in the United States. No state has a universal bicycle helmet law for pedal bikes, but a growing number of states require riders of electric bikes (e-bikes) and e-scooters to wear helmets. Additionally, 21 states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring pedal bicycle riders under certain ages to wear helmets. And throughout the country, in states with bike helmet laws and states without, city and county governments have passed various bicycle and e-bike helmet regulations, some age-restricted and some universal.
Even more so than motorcycle helmet laws, bicycle helmet use laws change frequently. To learn the laws that apply in the state and municipality where you live, consult this up-to-date summary of bicycle helmet laws compiled by the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute.
Your Rights After Suffering a Head Injury in an Accident
If you suffered a head injury in a motorcycle or bicycle accident, you may have a right to significant financial compensation from the party (or parties) whose dangerous actions led to the crash.
Every case differs, but with the help of an experienced lawyer, you could obtain money for:
- Medical care
- Replacement services
- Lost wages and income
- Pain and suffering
- Inconvenience and loss of quality of life
- Loss of companionship or consortium
- Scarring and disfigurement
In addition, if someone caused your accident by engaging in extreme or intentionally harmful conduct, you might also have the right to receive punitive damages designed to punish the wrongdoer. You may also have the right to receive workers’ compensation benefits if you suffered your injury while riding a bike or motorcycle for work.
Can wearing a helmet (or not) affect your right to compensation for a head injury?
It’s complicated. The American civil justice system compensates people for harm done to them by someone else’s wrongful actions. We do not allow people to recover damages for the harm they did to themselves or, in some cases, could have saved themselves from suffering by taking reasonable precautions.
Your choice to wear or not wear a helmet fits into that framework. Generally, you stand a stronger chance of recovering maximum compensation for injuries and losses you suffered in a crash while wearing a helmet than in a crash where you were unhelmeted. That’s because an insurance company, judge, or jury won’t usually blame you for head injuries you suffered despite wearing a helmet, but they might blame you for the same injuries if you didn’t protect your head.
The law where you live can also have an effect in this regard. If you got hurt while not wearing a helmet, you generally have a better shot at maximum damages if you had the right to choose to go helmet-less than if doing so broke the law.
That said, no one asks to suffer head injuries in a bicycle or motorcycle wreck. Your choice to wear a helmet might affect how much you can hope to receive. But regardless of your helmet use, you generally have the right to seek compensation for harm done by a crash caused by someone else’s careless or reckless actions.
Helmet Use Aside, a Brain Injury Lawyer Can Help You
If you or someone you love suffered head injuries in a bicycle or motorcycle accident, it can pay to contact a skilled lawyer immediately—regardless of your or your loved one’s helmet use at the time of the crash. You may have the right to claim damages, but only if you act quickly. Waiting to seek legal help can put those rights at risk.
An experienced brain injury lawyer can take steps to protect your interests, such as:
- Investigating your accident to identify who should pay your damages;
- Evaluating your losses to determine the compensation you should receive;
- Answering your questions and advising you about important decisions;
- Preparing and filing insurance claims and lawsuits on your behalf;
- Negotiating settlements and advising you about whether to accept settlement offers;
- Taking your case to trial to obtain a jury award in your favor;
- Collecting the money owed to you by at-fault parties and insurance companies.
You don’t need to worry about affordability. Most brain injury lawyers represent their clients on contingency fee agreements, meaning you only pay them if they win for you.