There are many reasons bicyclists ask, “is it illegal to cycle without a helmet?” While you may have your arguments for ditching a helmet, and while it is not illegal to ride without one, we highly recommend always cycling with a helmet.
As avid cyclists ourselves, we have experienced firsthand how important helmets are to biking safety. Whether you are riding a unicycle, bicycle, motorcycle, or anything else, protecting your head and neck with a helmet is always a good idea.
In this article, we will dive into guidelines surrounding bike safety and how helmets work. Finally, we will make our case for always wearing a helmet, so you will never have to ponder this question again. After reading, we hope you become an advocate for helmet safety with us!
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is part of the United States Department of Transportation, focused on all of the vehicles that travel across our big nation. This agency also promotes bicycle safety to make roads safe for everyone.
Every year, more people are choosing to bike everywhere, including to school or work. Many cities even have standard and electric bikes you can easily rent right off the street. This increase in bicycle traffic is attributed to health and eco-conscious trends.
According to the NHTSA, 846 bicyclists were killed, and 49,000 were injured in traffic accidents in 2019. The increase in both bicycle traffic and the inevitable accidents that occur means knowing bicycle safety is more essential than ever.
By law, bicycles traveling on roads have the same rights as other vehicles, like cars or buses. This is a two-way street, with both bicyclists and other vehicles agreeing to share the road and follow mutual safety and moving laws.
Bicycle laws share many similarities with traffic laws that apply to other vehicles. These laws are enforced at the state and local levels and may include specific bicycle laws for where you live. Be sure to review the specific rules that apply to the roads you plan to travel.
Currently, there is no common law to enforce wearing helmets while bicycling. However, many cities and states do have specific laws pertaining to bicycle helmets, which we will discuss in the next section.
Bicyclists must inform other vehicles of their intention to turn, stop, or change lanes. Some bikes have turn signals attached, similar to a car. But if yours does not, there are simple hand signals to use for safe cycling, as well as to avoid a traffic ticket.
- Right turn or lane change to the right: Extend right arm straight
- Left turn or lane change to the left: Right-arm bent at 90 degrees
- Stop: Right-arm bent downward at 90 degrees
In most states in America, a bicyclist must take measures to stay visible during all times of day and in all weather. This may include red reflectors or lights on the rear of the bike and white lights or reflectors on the front of the bicycle.
In most cities and states, bicyclists are restricted to riding on the street and not on sidewalks. This rule intends to prioritize pedestrians in this space, including those with mobility issues and things like baby strollers.
This rule can vary widely. For example, in San Francisco, bicyclists under 13 are welcome to ride on sidewalks. Check into the local rules for where you live or plan to travel to ensure you are following their sidewalk ordinances.
Running a Stop Sign or Stoplight
Bicyclists are not allowed to ride through stop signs or stoplights. Bikes must always come to a complete stop first, just like any other vehicle. Even if you are bicycling uphill, or in another difficult situation, it is most likely to rule where you are to stop at every marked crossing.
This rule is a good example of traffic laws applying to bicycles. Especially if you are traveling on the shared roadway, it is never bad to adhere to the general motorist traffic laws to keep you safe while bicycling.
Each state, city, or town may have its own laws for bicyclists, often including laws regarding wearing helmets. We have selected a few states from across the United States to highlight their specific biking rules and ordinances to give you an idea of the variety of biking laws that exist.
California is one of the most progressive states when it comes to bicyclist safety. This state is also experiencing more bicyclists deaths than at any time in the last 25 years. California has several specific state laws to help protect its many bicyclists.
In this state, all bicycle riders under the age of 18 must wear a helmet. Adults do not have a similar ordinance. California also encourages bicyclists to use the pedestrian crosswalk for making the more hazardous left turn, always yielding to pedestrians in the crosswalk.
In the wide expanses of Texas, you will still find state-specific bicycle laws. In particular, this state has many rules to govern one of the newest trends: electric bikes. For example, electric bikes may only operate in areas that have a posted speed limit of 30 miles per hour or less.
There are few specific laws about riding a bicycle in Texas, except for many basic ones. Bicyclists must have brakes on their bikes and have at least one hand on the handlebars at all times. In Texas, you must have lights on your bicycle in order to operate at night.
In the American Midwest, Illinois has an extensive bicycle safety website to help you understand how to ride safely. This is an excellent guide for anyone to learn how to prepare to ride your bicycle safely and for tips on how to ride in an alert and defensive way.
In Illinois, there are several different types of bike lanes. Pay close attention to marked shared lanes, where bicycles and vehicles must share the same lane.
These will differ from buffer-protected bike lanes, which provide a full bike lane and extra space to protect from opening car doors and other spontaneous hazards.
This state has many laws that are similar to the other states listed here that seem to point to other common bike laws. For example, all of these states do not allow you to tow anyone behind your bicycle and have outlawed having more than one person on a standard bicycle at one time.
Massachusetts also has specific laws about the appearance of your bicycle. It is not legal to have a bicycle in this East Coast state with handlebars that stretch above the rider’s head. This style is often referred to as a “choppers” style, similar to the design of a popular motorcycle.
How Laws are Enforced
If you break a common, state- or city-specific bicycle ordinance where you live or travel, you can expect to receive a traffic citation. Often like a ticket, this will be issued by local law enforcement. Just like with a vehicle, you may get a warning the first time or have to pay a fee.
For example, in California, a stop sign violation has a fee of $35, and running a red light on a bicycle will be punished with a $100 fine. Depending on where you committed the offense, there may also be county-based fines, which can tack on several hundred dollars to the base fine.
How Do Helmets Work?
Bicycling can be a risky endeavor and involves many unpredictable situations. You can simply never know if the vehicle near you is going to suddenly change lanes or open a car door. Motorists all have a blind spot in their vehicle, which can spell danger for a bicyclist.
While there are no common bicycle laws to require adults to wear a bicycle helmet, it is still the best way to protect yourself against head and neck injuries. Helmets are intentionally designed to reduce the impact of hitting your head on pavement and can save your life.
Helmets are made of a hard exterior with a snug-fitting strap that goes under your chin. The interior of the helmet is lined with a crushable foam material. The interior will often feature a 30-millimeter thick layer of crushable foam inside.
This foam must compress and cradle the head of the bicyclist in the event of an accident, while the exterior must withstand impact from asphalt or dirt. The chin strap must remain secure because if the helmet flies off on impact, there was no use wearing it in the first place.
Why You Should Always Wear a Cycling Helmet
To put it simply: a helmet can prevent a life-threatening injury. While it is always better to prevent an accident, sometimes even the most alert bicyclists are involved in a crash. To help protect you in unpredictable settings, it is advised for cyclists of all ages to always wear a helmet.
The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute offers a simple graph to illustrate the importance of wearing a helmet in a crash situation. This line graph shows the energy of the impact when a cyclist makes a connection with the ground during an accident.
In the graph depicting a cyclist wearing a helmet, the energy of the impact was a slight hill. This shows the moment of impact as a smooth curve. If the graph was animated, it would look like someone was sliding across the ground to safety.
However, the graph depicting a cyclist not wearing a helmet is much more disturbing. The line graph quickly shows a huge spike reaching all the way to the limits of the graph as the moment of impact. If this graph was animated, it would look like the stock market’s worst day ever.
According to the graph, only halfway up that spike is the area where permanent brain damage begins. This shows helmets can do a wide range of things, all the way from preventing aesthetically unpleasing scrapes on your face to protecting you from severe, irreversible injury.
It is not illegal to bicycle without a helmet if you are an adult. However, most states in the United States have some sort of law for those under the age of 18. Always review the specific bicycle ordinances in the places you choose to ride your bike.
Even if you are over 18, we always recommend wearing a bicycle to protect your precious head and neck while riding. Be sure to find one with at least 15 millimeters of crushable foam inside, an intact, hard exterior, and a chin strap that fits your face correctly.
Even if you are never involved in a severe bicycle accident where a helmet will save your life, a helmet is always a good idea. Prevent everything from permanent brain damage to broken bones and facial scrapes with a proper helmet.