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Bike riding is a popular activity for thousands of Californians. It provides enjoyment, stress management, and physical health benefits. Cycling also is an environmentally friendly way to get around. Unfortunately, bike accidents do happen, but wearing a helmet can help prevent serious head injury. It might even mean the difference between life and death.
Is it illegal to ride a bike without a helmet in California?
Yes, if you are a child who is 17 years old or younger. The law also applies to children who ride on public property, streets, or designated bike paths and trails. Although adults aged 18 years and older don’t have a legal obligation to wear helmets, it’s still a good idea for them to put one on.
In California, wearing a helmet is not just about safety; it’s the law for children under 18. Whether you’re a child or an adult, riding a bike without a helmet could make you more vulnerable to severe head injury and possibly death. It also can cost you money and non-financial headaches.
The California Bike Helmet Law
What does the law say? Article 4 of the California Vehicle Code requires that anyone under the age of 18 who rides a bicycle on a street, bikeway, or other public bike path or trail wear a bike helmet that meets safety standards. Article 4 also applies to minor passengers of a bike trailer or a passenger seat attached to the bike.
The law doesn’t just apply to bicycles. Article 4 of the California Vehicle Code also states that children have to wear a helmet when they ride any non-motorized scooter or skateboard. This requirement also applies to roller blades or skates that the child uses on any public grounds, designated paths and trails, or the street.
What about people over 17?
There are no laws in California—or any other U.S. state—that mandates bike helmets for adults over 18 years of age. Adults have the freedom to decide for themselves. Nevertheless, proponents of the law typically argue that helmets are an important safeguard for cyclists of any age.
Not just any helmet will do. A bike helmet that complies with the California law must pass safety standards set by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) or the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). These standards ensure that the helmet fits properly and adequately to protect the head against impact.
Don’t confuse the bike helmet law with motorcycle helmet laws. Just like a car or motorcycle, a bicycle is a vehicle; it’s another mode of transportation that gets you from one point to another. However, helmet laws differ across vehicles. For example, in California, people of all ages who ride or operate a motorcycle must wear a helmet at all times.
There’s a fine for not wearing a helmet. A violation of Article 4 can result in a fine of $25 or less, plus any court or administrative fees. The parent of guardian, not the child, is responsible for paying the fine and court costs. However, if the parent or guardian can testify in court that a particular helmet violation was a first offense, the court will dismiss the fine.
Parents and guardians can avoid paying the fine, thanks to AB-3077, an addition to the California law. Those who receive a ticket can correct the violation. If they show proof within 120 days of the citation that the child has since received an approved helmet and has attended bike safety training, the court will remove the citation record and waive the fine and fees.
The intent of AB-3077 is to spread an appreciation for and understanding of bike safety. The fine that comes with violating the law and the fees associated with the fine increasingly have became cost-prohibitive to some families. Such costs can discourage police from enforcing the law and writing tickets for infractions. AB-3077 eliminates fees as penalties and makes the law less punitive.
The California bike helmet law is the not the same everywhere. It’s a mistake to assume that the law applies in the same way in every town and municipality across the state. For instance, the cities of Chico, El Cerrito, and Bidwell Park require bike riders of all ages to wear a helmet. In these cities, the $25 fine applies to both residents and non-residents who visit or just happen to pass through.
The law is a response to the significant numbers of children in California who have suffered head trauma, injuries, and fatalities. The state enacted an earlier version of this law in 1993 because of the large number of children who had suffered injury and death because they weren’t wearing a bike helmet when in an accident.
The Case For and Against Wearing a Bike Helmet
On the one hand, there are arguments against individuals having to wear a helmet or states enacting bike helmet laws. Such laws might unintentionally discourage some people from riding bikes at all. Many adults and children admit that they would ride a bike or ride more often if laws didn’t require them to wear a helmet.
Another argument against bike helmets is that they do not protect you from being in an accident altogether. Bike helmets also can’t safeguard you against a concussion if your head should hit the asphalt during a crash. You also have to consider that a helmet only protects your head; other parts of your body can suffer injury.
On the other hand, wearing a bike helmet can provide crucial protection for your head and is more likely to prevent a bike-related death. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 857 bike riders were killed in crashes in the United States in 2018.
Bike helmets reduce all head and neck injuries by about 70%. A helmet also can reduce the odds of a neck injury by 65%. The change of a facial injury also goes down. Injury and fatality rates drop even further when cyclists wear helmets while riding on icy or wet roads.
Helmets are good for adults, too. Although the California law only applies to children under 18, adults can benefit from wearing a bike helmet. About 87% of all deaths from bike crashes have occurred among adults aged 20 years and older. Furthermore, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, less than half of all cyclists wear a helmet when they ride.
Wearing a helmet sets a good example for other bike riders. If you feel weird being the only one out there wearing a bike helmet, don’t be discouraged. You might not realize it, but you could be encouraging others to follow your lead. The more cyclists there are wearing helmets, the more normal and common the practice will become.
Not wearing a helmet might cost you. It’s not just about the fine. If you receive a citation for violating the California law, the state might find you at fault for your injuries. Some people who file insurance claims might lose some or all of their compensation if the injury is due to the lack of a helmet. Some courts might allow defendants in a lawsuit to use this defense.
What is AB-2989?
This bill is another addition to the Article 4 California Vehicle Code. It allows adults to choose whether or not to wear a helmet while riding a two-wheeled, non-electric motorized scooter with handlebars and a floorboard for standing. Children under 18 still have to wear a helmet.
What kinds of bike helmet laws exist in other states?
Not all states have bike helmet laws. Only 21 states and the District of Columbia mandate that children under 18 wear them. If you plan on travel, it’s always a good idea to check the regulations in another state because they tend to change.
Isn’t there a general consensus that bike helmets are a good idea?
There is much debate about the merits of wearing a bike helmet. Adults should make this decision for themselves based on what they see are the pros and cons. For instance, a cyclist might consider the freedom of not having to wear a helmet against possible injury or death.
How do I know if a helmet fits properly?
The helmet should feel snug, but not too tight, so that it won’t jiggle when you move your head. It should also sit level; don’t let it tilt to one side. For proper positioning, measure one finger between the top of your eyebrows and the bottom of helmet’s front. The chin strap should feel snug, and each of the side straps should fit around the ears like a “V”.
How can I be sure my helmet complies with safety standards?
The California Vehicle Code mandates that all bike helmets must meet standards based on construction, fit, and safety. Look for a certification sticker from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) or the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), each of which provide their safety criteria.
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