Since July 2000, motorcycle riders have not had to adhere to a universal helmet law, requiring all riders, regardless of age, to wear a helmet when operating their motorcycles. Today, Florida helmet laws stipulate that riders over the age of 21 who have at least $10,000 in medical coverage can legally ride their bikes without wearing a helmet, a move which was considered a victory by many bikers unhappy with universal helmet laws that had been in effect until that time.
Whether or not the move indicates a clear victory or not is a matter of interpretation. While riders can enjoy the road unencumbered by helmets that are often heavy and hot, a study by the Florida Department of Transportation indicates that motorcycle injuries and even deaths have risen following repeal of the universal laws, prompting some state officials to revisit the law.
The debate over universal helmet laws has not been restricted to Florida. Across the nation, universal helmet requirements have met with active opposition, and in recent years, many states have eliminated universal helmet laws entirely, while other impose certain age or insurance guidelines that govern who must wear a helmet, and who may choose not to wear a helmet.
Before 1966, there were no motorcycle helmet use laws in any state. But the Highway Safety Act of that same year put an end to that, requiring the establishment of uniform safety programs for motorcyclists nationwide. Under this act, all states were required to develop and implement laws that mandated the use of helmets by all motorcycle riders. States that refused to enact such legislatio0n faced losing s portion of federal highway construction funds.
In 1975, with penalties pending against three states, Congress revisited the Highway Safety Act, and eliminated the helmet law mandate, as well as disallowing a suspension of federal funds from states without universal helmet laws. The result: by 1978, 25 states had repealed their laws, or amended them to include only specific groups, generally individuals under the age of 18.
The 1980s was, overall, a period of stasis for helmet laws. But in the late 1980s and 1990s, many states began reenacting helmet laws in an effort to decrease injuries and fatalities, and reduce insurance and medical costs. In 1989, Oregon and Texas once again implemented universal helmet laws, and Washington and Maryland followed suit in 1990 ands 1992. Even California, which had never before enacted a helmet law, enacted a universal helmet law in 1992 after much publicity. Florida also enacted a helmet law, but in 1996 as noted, the law was revised to include only riders under 21 and those without adequate insurance coverage.
The repeal immediately saw a marked change in helmet use in the state. As observational helmet use studies conducted by the state DOT in 1998 revealed 99.5 percent of motorcycle riders wore helmets. A similar study conducted in 2002, two years after the repeal of the universal helmet law, indicated that rate had dropped to 52.7 percent.
A second study conducted by the Florida DOT also revealed that although the overall number of crashes decreased during the 18-month period after the law was repealed as compared to the 19-month period prior to repeal, fatal crashes among the state’s motorcycle riders increased by roughly 43 percent after Florida helmet laws were amended, from 284 fatalities in the 18-month period before repeal, to 404 fatalities in the 18-month period following repeal. Non-fatal injuries increased by about 16 percent in the same period. Even the numbers of under-age riders increased following repeal of the law, from 7 percent to 11 percent.
Given these figures, it’s clear that, while the repeal of Florida helmet laws may seem like a victory to motorcyclists, a significant increase in injuries and fatalities means this area will continue to be surrounded by controversy.