Helmets Save Floridians’ Lives, Especially on Fast Motorcycles
Nineteen years ago, all of Florida’s motorcyclists were required by law to wear a helmet with the aim of preventing deaths and catastrophic injuries during a Florida motorcycle accident. Citing personal freedoms, law-makers amended the Florida law, giving riders over the age of age 21 the option to forgo the helmet while riding their motorcycle. Was this a fatal decision?
Opinions are subjective but empirical data is doesn’t lie or leave much room for any opinions. Numbers can be crunched, but they cannot be manipulated – these numbers, taken from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2005 investigative study (NHTSA) speak for themselves:
- “In the three years after the law change (2001-2003), 933 motorcyclists were killed, 81 percent more than the 515 motorcyclists who were killed in 1997-1999.”
- The Safety Board’s warning bears repeating: “Head injuries are a leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes,” the board reports. “Motorcyclists who crash without a helmet are three times more likely to have brain injuries than those wearing a helmet.”
- Hospital admissions of motorcyclists with head and brain injuries increased 82 percent during the 30 months following the law change (Ulmer & Northrop, 2005).
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Helmet Laws Across the United States
Only three states (Iowa, Illinois, and New Hampshire) have no regulations concerning helmet requirements when riding a motorcycle. The majority of the states (28) have partial laws that mandate the use of a helmet for riders under a certain age (ranging from 17 to 20).
The twenty states that have mandatory helmet requirements for all motorcycle riders are:
- District Of Columbia
- New Jersey
- New York
- North Carolina
- West Virginia
The Department of Transportation’s safety facts publication shows helmets saved an estimated 1,859 lives in 2016. And in 2017, data revealed a 97% compliance rate in states with universal helmet laws, compared to 48% in states without them. Again, was Florida’s decision to repeal the universal helmet law in 2000 a fatal decision?
What Are the Motorcycle Laws in Florida?
Although the use of helmets is not required of all bikers, the riders of the 600,000 or more registered motorcycles do have state-mandated regulations that must be followed. Those mandates include insurance requirements, special licensing, equipment requirements, helmet laws, age restrictions, etc.
Insurance Requirements for Motorcyclists in Florida
To legally opt-out of the helmet requirement, a rider must be older than 21 and have a minimum of $10,000 worth of medical insurance to cover any injuries sustained in an accident. At Viles & Beckman, we encourage all Florida motorcyclists to make absolutely sure their medical insurance policy covers injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident.
While medical insurance is optional, liability insurance is not. All motorcyclists must have:
- A minimum of $20,000 in total body coverage
- At least $10,000 in property damage and bodily injury per person
- At least $30,000 in single incident liability
A Special Motorcycle License is Required by Law
The law requires all riders have either a motorcycle endorsement on their driver’s license or a “motorcycle only” license.
For a motorcycle endorsement an applicant must:
- Have a valid Florida driver’s license
- Complete an authorized motorcycle safety course
- Apply for the endorsement within 1 year after completion of the course
For a motorcycle-only license
- Be at least 16 years old
- If under 18 must have a learner’s permit and one year of driving experience with no traffic convictions
- Pass the operator’s driver license knowledge test
- Complete an authorized motorcycle safety course
Motorcycle Lights Must be on in Florida
Florida law requires the use of a headlight at all times when operating a motorcycle. This means that the motorcycle’s headlight must be on even when it is sunny and not raining. Studies have shown that motorcycle headlights always being on save lives.
Motorcyclists Have Both Rights and Responsibilities
Under Florida law, the rules of the road that apply to all motor vehicles, including motorcycles. When you ride a motorcycle in Florida, you must follow the same laws that others have to follow. You can’t weave in and out of traffic, and you must obey all traffic signals. Also, if you’re traveling on a moped below the speed of the regular flow of traffic, you must hug the right-hand curb.
Motorcyclists in Florida also have the same rights as other drivers on the road. You have the right to full use of your lane, but you can also share a lane with another motorcyclist if you want to. Florida law says that other drivers must give you full use of a lane. You may not, however, drive between lanes of traffic or lines and rows of vehicles, or along the shoulder of a highway.
Protective Equipment while Riding a Motorcycle
While the law in Florida does not require every rider to wear a helmet, protective clothing and equipment, like eyewear (glasses, goggles, or a face shield) are a must. Riders’ eyes are particularly vulnerable while riding in the open air. Wind, sand, small stones and pebbles, and even bugs can not only cause an injury but can be the cause of a motorcycle accident as well. Without clear vision, keeping control of a motorcycle is nearly impossible, especially if the rider loses clear vision suddenly.
For ultimate safety, bike riders and passengers should take advantage of protective clothing options such as:
- A heavy long-sleeved jacket
- Leather pants
- Riding gloves
Bikers should also consider wearing bright colors with reflective material, especially when riding between dusk and dawn, to make themselves more visible to other motorists.
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Certified and Non-Certified Helmets
If you choose the safety of wearing a motorcycle helmet (and we recommend you do), look for a helmet that meets minimum safety standards.
Motorcyclists have several styles of helmets to choose from:
- The full-face helmet protects the head and chin and is thought to offer the most protection
- The flip-down 3/4 coverage helmet does not protect the chin, but often has built-in eye protection
A quality helmet should:
- Have a “DOT” approved sticker
- Have at least a 1-inch inner lining
- Have a good chin strap with strong rivets
- Weigh at least three pounds
- Have nothing that projects more than one-fifth of an inch from the helmet itself
Although a quality helmet can be a hefty investment, this is one product that should never be purchased secondhand. Some of the reasons are:
- Helmets are designed for specific head shapes. Chances will be slim that the used model will be the right one for your best protection.
- You may not be able to tell if the helmet is damaged, how old it is, and how much wear and tear it has seen in its lifetime. In every case, new is best. The inner core is the actual buffer between your head and the pavement. There is no way to examine the stability of the core in a used item.
- The issue of hygiene goes without saying
Helmets Do Not Have Long Lives
A lot of bike enthusiasts do not realize a helmet should be replaced at least every five years. Especially when exposed over long periods of time to the Florida elements, the materials used in the composition of the helmet (glue, resin, fabric, and core materials) can break down and compromise the integrity of your headgear.
Not every helmet has a shelf life, but when it comes to protecting your brain, ‘better safe than sorry’ is more than a cliche.
There are tell-tale signs a helmet needs to be replaced:
- Once a helmet has been involved in an accident, replace it
- When the padding feels loose
- When the helmer no longer is snug
- If the helmet moves when you shake your head
- Indentations on the liner
- White scratches on the surface
One Size Does Not Fit All
Size is important when it comes to helmets. Although it is always better to purchase this important piece of protective equipment at a professional bike shop, if you have the right size, it is possible to order a quality model online. Measure the circumference of your head just above the ears about a half-inch below the eyebrows. Once you have an accurate measurement, most online sources will have a sizing guide.
A well-fitting helmet:
- Will feel comfortable, but snug
- Should not tilt back
- Should not cover the whole forehead
- Should sit evenly on the head
- Have a sturdy buckle
- Should not move when buckled
Is Not Wearing a Helmet Considered Negligence?
Although it is legal not to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle in Florida, the question arises whether going without head protection constitutes “negligence” or something close to it that could reduce the damages a rider might receive as compensation after a motorcycle accident.
In instances where an unhelmeted motorcyclist is injured in an auto accident, the defense team may use what is commonly called “the helmet defense” by the legal community.
Because Florida is a comparative negligence state, the insurance carriers and litigators working on behalf of the defendant will often claim the victim’s injuries might not have been as severe if he or she had been wearing a helmet. If the judge and/or jury agree, the amount of financial compensation can be reduced proportionally by the amount of the victim’s liability.
This issue is rife with controversy. Although it is an accepted fact that the person who caused the injury should be held responsible, does this hold true if the victim was not exercising good judgment in not wearing a helmet? Exempt riders are not breaking the law by not wearing a helmet, but by the same token, they are not exercising their duty to take measures to be careful and reasonable. If one must err, err on the side of safety and wear a helmet.
Safety issues aside, a judge and jury will feel far more sympathy for a helmeted rider than one who was injured without wearing one.
Would this even be an issue if Florida had universal helmet laws?
The Consequences of Riding Without a Helmet
While many folks believe that the lack of a helmet law in Florida is not in the best interest of bikers, some feel a helmet can actually cause or exacerbate a neck injury. The main concern is, due to the weight of a quality helmet, the jerking motions and the forward and backward thrusts of the head during a crash can actually break one’s neck.
A recent study conducted over a five year period at the University Of Wisconsin-Madison’s School Of Medicine proved differently. For purposes of comparison, like Florida, Wisconsin does not require helmet use for most riders.
The results of the study indicated the unhelmeted riders had twice as many neck injuries:
- 15.4 percent of riders with no helmets had at least one neck injury
- 7.4 percent of those wearing a helmet sustained a neck injury
Also of note, 10.8 percent of the riders without a helmet actually broke a bone in their neck, compared with 4.6 percent of those with helmets. Injuries to the ligaments were also more prevalent without helmet use.
“Our study suggests that wearing a helmet would be a reasonable method to reduce the risk of cervical spine injury in a motorcycle crash.”—Nathaniel Brooks, MD, Associate professor of neurosurgery in the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.
Florida’s motorcycle death toll remains among the nation’s highest. Sadly many of these fatalities might have been prevented if the rider wore a helmet. A fairly recent consumer survey from AAA asked the question, “Do you think motorcycles should be required by law to wear a helmet?” 84 percent of the general population felt a mandatory helmet would be a good idea, but only 68 percent of motorcycle owners thought so.
In addition to soft tissue damage, fractures of both the upper and lower extremities, and road rash, the most common and most serious injury suffered in a motorcycle accident is a traumatic brain injury, which a helmet can help prevent. The cost of recovery from a TBI is steep. Financially a victim may expect to be financially compensated for:
- Extensive hospitalization
- Physical, occupational, and possibly speech therapy
- Lost wages
- Loss of future earning ability
- Modifications to the home
- The need for in-home assistance
- Pain and suffering
- Mental anguish
[For more on motorcycle accidents in Florida, check out our article “FLORIDA MOTORCYCLE ACCIDENT FAQ“]
If you have questions or concerns about your right to recovery in a motorcycle accident, a motorcycle accident lawyer may help.