Bicycle Helmets: Laws And Recommendations

Tens of thousands of people rely on their bicycles each day to get them where they need to go in Boston. Nearly a third of those riders don’t wear helmets.

A recent citywide survey of bicyclist behaviors reveals:

  • Citywide helmet usage: 72 percent (meaning 28 percent do not)
  • Helmet use among riders calling for EMS help: 45 percent
  • Percentage of riders who report wearing a helmet “never” or “sometimes” and who say they would do so if it was more affordable: 32 percent

At The Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman's BikeAttorney.com, our Boston bicycle injury lawyers know that while helmets aren’t mandated for cyclists in Massachusetts, they are known to reduce the severity of injuries for those involved in collisions.

As the city’s Boston Bikes humorously puts it, “Lights and helmets are required by law! Helmets are required by your mom.”

Do Helmets Reduce Head Injuries?

Although there has been some dispute in recent years as to how much helmets protect riders, there is little doubt they have benefit.

We know, for example, that based on federal bicycle fatality data, those killed in bicycle accidents usually aren’t wearing a helmet. This has remained consistent, with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reporting:

  • 2013: 63 percent of cyclists who died weren’t wearing helmets, while 17 percent were (and the rest were unknown);
  • 2012: 64 percent of cyclists who died weren’t wearing helmets, while 17 percent were;
  • 2011: 66 percent of cyclists who died weren’t wearing helmets, while 15 percent were.

This trend has been consistent since 1994, when the federal government first started keeping track.

The IIHS estimates helmet use by cyclists reduce the risk of head injury by half and the potential for head, face or neck injury by 33 percent.

While another often-cited statistic is that helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 85 percent, some have argued that figure is based on a 1989 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine that hasn’t been replicated. There is further evidence helmets don’t protect against concussions, which can have serious negative consequences for riders.

Following that criticism, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) stopped using the figure in public education campaigns. However, the agency still continues to drive home the importance of helmet use as a critical line of defense for vulnerable road users – especially kids. The administration emphatically asserts helmets are, “The single most effective way to prevent head injury from resulting in a bicycle crash.”

In Boston, EMS officials report that regarding the bicycle accidents to which they responded between 2009 and 2012, cyclists were helmeted less than 50 percent of the time. Men wore helmets in about 43 percent of the cases and women about 60 percent. This is much lower than the overall usage recorded city usage rate of 72 percent.

So all-in-all, they aren’t a bad idea, so long as you don’t derive from them a false sense of security. The city offers helmet purchases for less than $25, or they can be rented for just $2 through Hubway. Memberships to Hubway – with helmets included – are available to low-income Boston residents for less than $5.

What If I Don’t Wear a Bicycle Helmet

Assuming you are 17 or older, you aren’t required by Massachusetts law to wear a helmet on a bicycle. Mass. Gen. Law Ch. 85, Section 11B(2)(iii) states helmets aren’t required except by those ages 16 or younger who are either operating a bicycle or being carried as a passenger on a bicycle on a public way, bicycle path or any other public right-of-way.

In cases where helmets are required, they must:

  • Fit the person’s head;
  • Be secured by straps while the bicycle is being operated;
  • Meet the standards for helmets, as set forth by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

They don’t apply when a minor passenger is in an enclosed trailer or other device that holds the passenger in place and protects the child’s head from impact.

State law is also very clear on another important point: Contributory negligence. Specifically, the failure of a person to wear a helmet – or make sure their child is wearing one – is not to be used as evidence of contributory negligence in any civil action. That’s important for injury case plaintiffs because otherwise, defendants would be able to deny liability or significantly reduce damages owed by asserting the injuries would not have been so severe had the victim been wearing a helmet.

The IIHS reports that while 21 states plus the District of Columbia have helmet use laws apply to young cyclists, none apply to all riders. There are in some cases local ordinances that require all cyclists to wear helmets. Some fear these measures will backfire because people either don’t wear them properly, may assume the devices offer greater protection than they do or simply choose not to ride at all.

For those who are required or choose to wear bicycle helmets, it’s important to make sure they fit the right way.

Get a Good-Fitting Helmet

A helmet for bicycling does little good if it’s not properly fit.

The NHTSA advises that helmets have to be snug, level and stable on the wearer’s head and it should cover most of the forehead before any adjustments are made. The process involves:

  • Size: Trying on several helmets before finding one that fits.
  • Position: Making sure the helmet is level on your head and low on your forehead – one to two finger-widths above the eyebrow.
  • Side Straps: Adjusting both straps to form a “V” in front of the ears.
  • Buckles: Centering the left buckle under the chin.
  • Chin Strap: Buckle the chin strap and tighten until you can fit no more than one or two fingers underneath.

If the helmet rocks forward into your eyes, feels loose or is uncomfortable adjust it until it works or consider getting a new one. If a helmet has been involved in a crash, it should be discarded and replaced. Not all damage may be immediately visible from the outside.

Anyone injured in a bicycle accident – helmeted or not – should contact an injury lawyer to learn more about his or her legal options.

Contact the Boston Bicycle Accident Lawyers at The Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman's BikeAttorney.com.