U.S. and Canadian Motorcycle Helmet Use Laws

Motorcycle helmet laws vary significantly from state to state in the United States. They range from the simplest, requiring a helmet at all times, to those which only require lids for riders of a certain age or in specific circumstances. Knowing which laws apply to you will depend on where you live and to which parts of the country you travel by motorbike.

Residing in a state which does not require a motorcycle helmet does grant you permission to ride without a helmet in a state where every rider is required to be protected. If you travel into a state where the laws differ from those in your home state you must adjust accordingly or risk some rather expensive tickets, or worse - in some places it can mean impoundment of your vehicle.

Knowing these laws takes a bit of research. However, even that can leave you lacking the correct information since so many of the state legislatures alter their composition from session to session and change these laws continually. Always check again before you depart on a trip to or through the states in which you do not live to be sure that the rules of the road are not different from the last time you went that way.

Also, pay particular attention to the details. In some states, there are specific requirements which can change the application of the law. In Texas, for instance, riders 20 years-old and younger must wear a helmet, but those older must also wear one if they have not completed a motorcycle riding safety course or do not have health insurance. That last bit is only a "secondary" enforcement option - meaning that police only issue a ticket for violating it should the rider be pulled over for another infraction, such as speeding or running a stop light - but it does demonstrate how complex the myriad of rules can be.

To help you wade through the details, we cover the following topics in this guide:

Below are the latest requirements, state-by-state, based on the most recent data and knowledge available. Look it over closely so that you are not inconvenienced by the authorities the next time you travel through a state you visit only occasionally.

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U.S. State-by-State Helmet Laws

The following chart is accurate as of October of 2013 and all laws are subject to change, so check regularly if you travel to any of these states frequently.

State Current Helmet Law

Alabama

Universal; all riders

Alaska

Under-18 and any rider with an instructional permit; all passengers

Arizona

Under-18

Arkansas

Under-21

California

Universal; all riders

Colorado

Under-18; operators and passengers

Connecticut

Under-18

Delaware

Under-19

D.C.

Universal; all riders

Florida

Under-21 or those with less than $10,000 in medical insurance coverage for motorcycle riders

Georgia

Universal; all riders

Guam

Under-18

Hawaii

Under-18

Idaho

Under-18

Illinois

No restrictions / No law

Indiana

Under-18

Iowa

No restrictions / No law

Kansas

Under-18

Kentucky

Under-21 and riders licensed less than one year or with no medical insurance

Louisiana

Universal; all riders

Maine

Under-18 and riders licensed less than one year

Maryland

Universal; all riders

Massachusetts

Universal; all riders

Michigan

Under-21 and riders with no medical insurance

Minnesota

Under-18 and any rider with an instructional permit

Mississippi

Universal; all riders

Missouri

Universal; all riders

Montana

Under-18

Nebraska

Universal; all riders

Nevada

Universal; all riders

New Hampshire

No restrictions / No law

New Jersey

Universal; all riders

New Mexico

Under-18

New York

Universal; all riders

North Carolina

Universal; all riders

North Dakota

Under-18 and all passengers if operator is under 18

Northern Mariana Islands

Universal; all riders

Ohio

Under-18 and riders licensed less than one year; all passengers if operator is required to wear a helmet

Oklahoma

Under-18

Oregon

Universal; all riders

Pennsylvania

Under-21 and riders licensed less than two years (unless rider has completed PennDOT or Motorcycle Safety Foundation-approved motorcycle rider safety course)

Puerto Rico

Universal; all riders

Rhode Island

Under-21 and riders licensed less than one year; all passengers

South Carolina

Under-21

South Dakota

Under-18

Tennessee

Universal; all riders

Texas

Under-21 and riders who have not completed a motorcycle rider safety course or do not have medical insurance (secondary enforcement)

Utah

Under-18

Vermont

Universal; all riders

Virgin Islands

Universal; all riders

Virginia

Universal; all riders

Washington

Universal; all riders

West Virginia

Universal; all riders

Wisconsin

Under-18 and riders with only an instructional permit

Wyoming

Under-18

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U.S. Road Legal Helmet

For those states which require a motorcycle helmet to be worn, whether universal, based on age, or determined by your insurance coverage or riding education, you must wear a helmet which is certified as road legal by the U.S. Department of Transportation. All helmets with the "DOT" stamp of approval must adhere to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard #218, Motorcycle Helmets, otherwise referred to as "FMVSS 218."

Though it is the DOT which sets the standard, it is up to the enforcement division, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), to enforce these rules. Even so, neither the DOT nor NHTSA actually test motorcycle helmets for on-road use. Each manufacturer does all of the necessary testing before filing the passing results with the DOT when it places the all-important "DOT" label on the back of the lid, thus self-certifying it.

NHTSA does, however, select random samples of all DOT-certified helmets for verification and compliance testing with a contracted independent authority. Should a helmet not adhere to FMVSS 218, the manufacturer of that helmet must remedy the situation via the DOT recall procedures or face fines of up to $5000 per helmet sold.

Always, without fail, determine that whichever helmet you purchase for on-road use has met these important criteria or the helmet will not be considered legal by enforcement authorities, and it may be unsafe. Do not rely solely on a "DOT" sticker; do your research with the company selling the lid and the helmet manufacturer to be completely certain that you have a helmet which is in compliance with the DOT standard at minimum.

When you do find a helmet with the "DOT" sticker, make sure that it is authentic by checking for the following aspects within its borders:

  • The manufacturer's name
  • Helmet model number or name
  • "DOT" below the manufacturer?s name
  • "FMVSS 218" centered below "DOT"
  • The word "Certified" below "FMVSS 218"

This is a very new directive and only applies to all motorcycle helmets manufactured since May of 2013. Helmet models from previous years often have only a small decal with ?DOT? written on it, making it far more difficult to be certain it is actually certified without doing some research; most major manufacturers, though, can be relied on for producing only DOT-certified helmets for street use in the U.S.

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Canada

Canadian motorcycle riders have a bit more flexibility when it comes to motorcycle helmet safety certifications. Since the nation eliminated the Canadian-specific standard - Standard CAN-3-D230 of the Canadian Standards Association - helmets which are allowed on Canadian roads simply must have one of the following certifications:

  • U.S. DOT certification based on FMVSS 218
  • SNELL M2010 certification (see below)
  • ECE Regulation 22.05 certification (see below)

Even though all provinces within Canada set their own rules and regulations for use of motorcycle helmets by riders and passengers, all provinces will accept any of the three standards listed above. Some will accept other certifications from around the world, so check with your provincial authority to get an accurate and up-to-date list.

All Canadian provinces require a motorcycle helmet for rider and passenger irrespective of age or training.

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Other Certifications

Though certifications beyond the FMVSS 218 DOT standard exist, they do not have any relevance for legal operation of a motorcycle where a helmet is required by law in the U.S. In Canada, however, these additional standards do apply to road legal helmets.

Both of the standards below are often lauded as being more stringent than what the U.S. government requires, but they do not count at all in a U.S. courtroom. So, if you are riding on American roads, count the following certifications as an extra layer of helmet protection regulations which go beyond what the DOT asks of manufacturers.

The most common of these alternative standards in the U.S. and Canada is the SNELL M2010 certification. It is an updated version of a set of motorcycle helmet safety tests first created by the SNELL Memorial Foundation, a private non-profit dedicated to improving motorcycle helmet safety, back in 1957.

SNELL M2010 is considered to be a higher level than what the DOT requires, though it is completely voluntary and is not required by any federal or state agency. What it does do is add another level of safety testing to any helmet which bears the SNELL sticker. Having this certification means that the motorcycle helmet will not only pass the impact tests the U.S. government requires, but it will also withstand the more intense and wide-ranging assessments which are part of the SNELL process, arguably making it a safer lid.

SNELL Specification Diagram

Another common certification which may be applied to many helmets sold both within North America and across the Atlantic in Europe is ECE approval. The Economic Commission for Europe was created thorough the United Nations in 1947 covering a host of regulations in an attempt to standardize them across many nations - Europe to begin with, but the standard has spread to 56 nations today.

The ECE motorcycle safety helmet certification is set out in section 22.05 of the regulations and is similar to the DOT standard. It does have some notable differences, however. There are a few more tests, more stringent requirements in others, the standard includes visors and shields (not covered by the DOT FMVSS 218 standard, but covered in VESC (Vehicle Equipment Safety Commission) rule 8) and the ECE certification is divided into three different categories which apply to motorcycle helmets - ECE 22.05J, ECE 22.05P and ECE 22.05NP:

  • "J" is a designation for helmets which do not have a chinbar
  • "P" for helmets with a lower cover or chinbar which is designed to protect the wearer
  • "NP" for helmets with a chinbar which is not designed to be protective

The ECE certification also requires that manufacturers submit 50 helmet/visor models, randomly selected from the production run, for testing in an authorized ECE-designated and approved lab. All of the submitted products must pass the standard tests and the production line must adhere to certain quality control requirements so that all helmets are made in an identical manner, or the certification is not given.

Note that the ECE certification sticker will only be found on helmets sold within the borders of member nations. Helmets which meet the requirements which are sold outside those countries will often not have the ECE sticker even if they are certified.

Other standards for motorcycle helmet safety do exist, but many of them will not be applied to helmet models not sold in within the nation which wrote the regulations. Having such an approval does not necessarily mean that all helmets of the same model live up to the requirements as manufacturers can, and often do, have different versions of the same model produced for sale to specific nations. So, though it may seem like it is best to find a helmet with the most safety certifications, it is no safe bet.

All you need to be sure of to be legal is that any motorcycle helmet you purchase for use on U.S. or Canadian roads meets the DOT FMVSS 218 standard. Having the SNELL M2010 certification is a very good idea as it tends to complement the DOT regulations, but it is fairly uncommon and only works as a requirement in Canada if a helmet does not have U.S. DOT certification - it has no application in U.S. law. The ECE standard applies to motorcycle helmets sold within its member nations, which includes Canada, but not the U.S. However, a helmet with the ECE certification (when combined with the U.S. DOT certification, it is often called "all world" certification) has passed more tests in a more direct manner than those only approved by the U.S. DOT.

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A Note on Motorcycle Helmet Use

This fact is simple and so easy to understand that anyone is capable of comprehending exactly what it means: The single most effective piece of motorcycle safety equipment in preventing motorcycle crash fatalities is the motorcycle helmet.

It is thus easy to derive and execute the best strategy for riding a good long time, maybe even throughout your entire life - wear a helmet! You are not only saving your own life, but also those of the people who depend on and care about you.

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Written By: JC Current

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