The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Motorcycle Safety Program

January 2003










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While crash prevention is the primary focus of NHTSA’s motorcycle safety program, not all motorcycle crashes will be prevented. In light of this fact, injury prevention becomes an ever-increasing important component to reverse the upward trend in the number of motorcyclist fatalities each year. Injury mitigation stresses promoting the use of protective gear, including helmets that are compliant with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 218, Motorcycle Helmets (FMVSS No. 218) and supporting helmet usage laws governing riders of all ages.


Observed Helmet Use Source: NOPUS Helmets worn as part of a motorcyclist’s protective gear are known to be very effective in a crash. NHTSA estimates that helmets saved the lives of 674 motorcyclists in 2001, and that 444 more lives could have been saved if all motorcyclists had worn helmets. Reported helmet use rates for fatally injured motorcyclists in 2001 were 53 percent for operators and 41 percent for passengers, compared with 54 percent and 47 percent, respectively, in 2000. Helmets are estimated to be 29 percent effective in preventing fatal injuries to motorcyclists and 67 percent effective in preventing brain injuries. [6]   According to NHTSA’s NOPUS, helmet use for motorcycle operators fell from 71 percent in 2000 to 58 percent in 2002. This drop is significant and corresponds to a striking 45 percent increase in nonuse. According to previous NHTSA surveys, helmet use was reported to be near 100 percent at sites with State helmet use laws governing all motorcycle riders, as compared to 34 to 54 percent at sites with no helmet use laws or laws limited to minors.

Today, 20 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico require helmet use by all motorcycle operators and passengers. In another 27 States, only persons under a specific age, are required to wear helmets. Three States have no laws governing helmet use.  

Mandatory helmet use laws were first required as part of the agency’s initial highway safety program standards issued in 1967. From the onset, helmet laws have been a contentious issue in many states as public policy makers have debated the balance between personal freedom and the societal cost of crashes. Those opposed to mandatory helmet laws generally argue that their individual rights are or will be infringed and that helmet use should be left up to the choice of individual riders. Those who advocate for helmet laws note that helmets are effective in reducing injury severity and that society bears a significant portion of motorcycle crash costs, thereby establishing a public interest in requiring the use of reasonable safety equipment. NHTSA estimates that $13.2 billion was saved from 1984 through 1999 alone, because of the use of motorcycle helmets. An additional $11.1 billion would have been saved if all motorcyclists had worn helmets. [7]  

The cornerstone of the agency’s injury mitigation component of its motorcycle safety program will be increasing the use of helmets that meet the FMVSS No. 218. NHTSA issued FMVSS No. 218, Motorcycle Helmets, on March 1, 1974, the performance standard, which establishes the minimum level of protection helmets must afford each user. All motorcycle helmets sold in the United States are required to meet FMVSS No. 218. FMVSS No. 218 has been amended twice, May 1, 1980, and on October 3, 1988. The 1980 amendment extended application of the standard to more helmets and the 1988 amendment added more test head forms and extended the standard’s performance requirements to all helmet sizes and to improve test procedures.

While some States have chosen not to enact helmet laws for all riders, NHTSA will continue to work with the motorcycling, traffic safety, and health communities to educate and promote the voluntary use of helmets which meet FMVSS No. 218, along with the use of other types of personal protective gear as the last line of defense against serious injury for crash-involved motorcyclists. Wearing protective gear is the best weapon against injury when a crash does occur but many motorcyclists continue to ride with improper attire and non-compliant helmets or no helmet at all. Results of a study conducted in Florida indicate an increase in the use of noncompliant helmets. [8]  NHTSA’s NOPUS survey found that noncompliant helmet use equated to 14 percent in 2000 and 2002 respectively. Noncompliant helmets in the marketplace have a negative impact on the enforceability of FMVSS No. 218 for law enforcement officers, on safety for the users, and on economics for the manufacturers of compliant helmets.

As part of a nationwide protective gear campaign, NHTSA will develop consumer information to better inform motorcyclists of the characteristics of compliant helmets and the lack of safety provided by noncompliant helmets. However, not all motorcyclists are the same. As such, an important component to this National protective gear public information and education will be to develop messages for the various segments of the motorcycling population. For example, messages may be developed for the population of motorcyclists who prefer to ride cruisers, touring, or sport bikes. [9]   In addition, the agency will promote the use of other protective gear that will increase conspicuity, mitigate injuries, and make the ride more comfortable for motorcyclists.

Meanwhile, NHTSA will work with appropriate National, State, and local law enforcement organizations to train law enforcement officers to identify noncompliant helmets while also developing training for judges and prosecutors to adjudicate helmet law violations. However, this task will prove challenging. Enforcing helmet laws that reference or incorporate FMVSS No. 218 have been difficult for local and State law enforcement officers to enforce. The agency has received many complaints from law enforcement agencies across the country regarding officers’ inability to prove a helmet is noncompliant under State law due to the accessibility of counterfeit DOT stickers. NHTSA will continue to provide technical assistance to States, when requested, with regard to legislation and laws relating to compliant helmet use.

NHTSA’s Helmet Program:

    arrow Evaluate Effects of Helmet Law Repeals. NHTSA will continue to conduct appropriate research and evaluation on activities related to motorcycle helmet use laws and helmet use. The harsh reality exposed by the State helmet law repeal evaluations has prompted NHTSA to continue to evaluate the effects of helmet law enactments and/or repeals. As NHTSA tracks motorcycle crash experiences in States that repeal their helmet laws, the agency will use the State motorcycle fatality data to publicize the protective value of helmet use. The results will assist policy makers at the State and local level to make appropriate decisions that are based on the best available scientific evidence. Targeted completion date– Ongoing, As Needed.

    arrow Propose Rulemaking to Upgrade FMVSS No. 218, Motorcycle Helmets.  NHTSA will consider proposing rulemaking to require that helmets offer better protection and be more comfortable to wear. Targeted completion date– To Be Determined.

    arrow Revise FMVSS No. 218’s Labeling Requirements.  The agency is considering revising the standard’s labeling requirement to strengthen the standard’s enforcement effectiveness (e.g., to enable enforcement officers to distinguish noncompliant helmets from compliant helmets). Targeted completion date – To Be Determined.

    arrow Harmonize Helmet Requirements with Other National and International Standards.  The agency may also harmonize the performance and test requirements with other major international and National standards, where appropriate, for improving helmet performance based on safety need and for reducing helmet cost to consumers from more uniform helmet designs. Targeted completion date– To Be Determined.