Many states have laws requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets. These laws can be a deciding factor in your ability to recover for head and neck injuries in a motorcycle accident. Recovery depends on your state's motorcycle helmet law, the nature of your injuries, and whether you were wearing a helmet during the accident. (To learn about liability for accidents when motorcycles ride between lanes, read Nolo's article Motorcycle Accidents: Lane Splitting.)
Helmet Laws and Motorcycle Safety
Evidence overwhelmingly suggests that wearing a motorcycle helmet significantly reduces the incidence of head injuries in accidents. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates, for every 100 motorcyclists killed in a crash while not wearing a helmet, 37 would have survived if they had been wearing a helmet. And that doesn't even count the enormous reduction in non-fatal injuries achieved by helmets. All in all, these are overwhelming numbers.
For this reason, the vast majority of states require at least some motorcycle riders to wear helmets. In some states, all riders must wear helmets. In others, only motorcycle riders under a certain age must wear helmets. Only three states don't have any helmet law at all: Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire. To see a list of state helmet laws, check out the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's website at www.iihs.org (click "Laws & regs," then "Helmet use laws").
Motorcycle Helmet Laws and Recovery for Injuries
If you are a motorcyclist in an accident, your state's helmet law may play a large role in whether you can recover for any resulting head and neck injuries. Here are some possible scenarios and what your chances of recovery are in each one.
Wearing Helmet, No Head or Neck Injury
If you were wearing a motorcycle helmet but did not sustain head or neck injuries, the helmet is irrelevant to your injury claim. However, it doesn't hurt to mention the fact that you were wearing a helmet -- it may help show that you are a responsible rider.
Not Wearing Helmet, No Head or Neck Injury
Likewise, if you were not wearing a helmet but did not sustain head or neck injuries, the fact that you did not wear a helmet is legally irrelevant. This is true even if the law in your state requires you to wear a helmet.
Wearing Helmet, Head or Neck Injury
If you were wearing a helmet and still suffered head or neck injuries, the helmet is important to your claim. It shows that your injuries were not made worse by your own carelessness. It also shows how much worse your injuries could have been, and therefore how dangerous the other driver's actions were, had you not been wearing a helmet.
Not Wearing Helmet, No State Helmet Law, Head or Neck Injury
If you were not wearing a helmet and suffered head or neck injuries, it may be difficult to recover for your injuries -- even if your state does not require you to wear a helmet. If your failure to wear a helmet contributed to the severity of your injuries, you may be found to be "comparatively negligent" -- meaning you might be found to be partially responsible for your own injuries. (To learn more about comparative negligence, read Nolo's article Proving Fault in Personal Injury Accidents: General Rules.)
Insurance adjusters will likely produce an overwhelming array of documentation demonstrating that helmets usually significantly reduce head injuries. You must then persuade the insurance adjuster that you would have suffered head or neck injuries even if you were wearing a helmet. If the insurance adjuster believes a helmet would have reduced your injuries, then your compensation will be reduced accordingly.
Not Wearing Helmet, State Helmet Law, Head or Neck Injury
If your state requires you to wear a helmet and you sustain a head injury while not wearing a helmet, it will be extremely difficult to recover damages for your head injury. (You may still be able to recover for other injuries, however.) The fact that your state has a helmet law automatically establishes your comparative negligence.
A motorcyclist in this situation might still be able to obtain some compensation by proving that the injury would have occurred even with a helmet. However, this is a tough task and -- if possible at all -- requires the services of an experienced personal injury lawyer.
To learn more about liability and recovery for damages in motorcycle and other vehicle accidents, get How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Joseph L. Matthews (Nolo).