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A Guide to Bike Helmet Laws in California

bike helmet law California

The safety of riders who use bicycles or motorcycles has long been the agenda of lawmakers in the state of California. There have been regular updates to the Vehicle code that have included e-bikes (state-wise electric bike laws in the US) and mopeds to this list too. Amongst all the strict laws, there is a helmet law that is mandatory for kids.  While adults are not required to use a helmet on bicycles ( still encouraged to do so) – helmet becomes mandatory on motorcycles where the law extends to passengers too. All of this is targeted to bring down the increasing number of fatalities on bicycles.

Bicycle helmet law california 2020Mandatory helmet law california

1. Purpose of imposing helmet laws

The initial purpose behind implementing helmet laws in California was to make sure that motorcycle operators and their passengers are safe while they are on the roads of the state. However, the statute was later extended to include bicycles that are motorized too.
After implementation, the state was able to reflect on its effectiveness in 1993 when motorcycle-related deaths took a nosedive of 37 percent. Owing to the mandatory use, deaths due to head-related motorcycle injuries came down by 69 percent.

2. Discuss the helmet usage law basics in California.

Basically, the law states that if you are under 18 – you have to wear a helmet if you are on a trail, bicycle path, and any public property like a road or bikeway and it applies to both the rider and the passenger. The helmet cannot be just any helmet – it has to be approved and should fit in your head properly with proper fastening mechanisms. Such an individual will not be liable to a fine if they do not wear a helmet on private property. This law is not mandatory for bikers of all ages, and if you are 18+ – using a helmet while riding on a bicycle is not mandatory.

3. Dig Deeper into the laws

If you are a cyclist who is not yet 18 – while the helmet is mandatory for in all places except private properties, the helmet should also be: i. Fitted properly; ii. Well fastened; and iii. Approved for use in compliance with helmet safety requirements. By “all places” the law is referring to a) Streets, b) Bikeways, c) Sidewalks, d) Bicycle paths and trails owned by the State. The helmet usage law also includes any passenger/passengers that may accompany the bicycle operator. This is irrespective of whether they are being towed in a trailer or strapped in a seat that has been attached to the side of the bicycle.

Please note that the law applies to everyone irrespective of the religion that they practice. Therefore, you will not be exempted from the helmet law for cyclists even if you are wearing a turban, kippah, or a hijab, for example.

The inability of any individual to abide by these laws will earn him or her a $25 fine. If you are age is less than 18, the fine may apply to both you and your parent/legal guardian. The State also offers another means to deal with this violation.

For offenders below 18, there will be a window of 120 days for the person who is responsible for the individual – whether it is a parent or a legal guardian to provide evidence to the respective local security forces that the under-18 cyclist I) Owns a helmet that is approved for use in compliance with the guidelines that have been set by the State of California, and II) Has undertaken a course on bicycle safety – this is usually prescribed by local jurisdiction authorities. If both these requirements are fulfilled, the citation is less likely to be transferred for a hearing and no fine will be imposed.

In the case of an injury or death of a cyclist aged below 18 and does not have a helmet on – there are likely to be complications dealing with insurance companies or during the trial if the victim does not have a helmet on. This is although death may be due to the negligence of another individual. As California state abides by “comparative negligence” which states that “cyclist’s lack of a helmet when the law required one could result in some percentage of the liability for the cyclist’s injuries being apportioned to the cyclist”. For adults, failure to wear a helmet would make the respective individual responsible for a percentage of the injuries that may have been inflicted on them by another individual.

The law includes motorcycles and bicycles that have been motorized too. Even if the passenger is wearing a helmet, riding with a helmetless driver is illegal. This goes the other way too – a passenger who is not wearing a helmet will earn a helmeted driver a ticket.

While the above-stated guidelines are not applicable for cyclists who are more than 18 years old – if the authorities of individual parks/trails require them to use a helmet, like Bidwell Park – they have to abide by the rules.

4. Few of the requirements for the bicycle helmet fit

It is crucial that any helmet that is being used in the State of California fit properly on the user’s head, because what good is a helmet if it does not fit properly.

  • The helmet should be sitting low and flat on the head of the user so that a majority portion of the forehead is covered. Typically, it should be lying at a distance above the eyebrows that correspond to the widths of a single or pair of fingers.
  • The size of the helmet being used should match the diameter of the user’s head, and the fit should be snug.

Remember that some helmet manufacturers suggest going one size up for their helmet models. Any forward or backward rocking of the helmet on the head while riding or any sort of movement means that the helmet may be too large or the fit is too loose. If it sits too high on the forehead, the helmet is too small.

  • The buckle of the helmet should sit snug below the chin, and of course, it has to be comfortable. Ideal strap fitting should not accommodate more than two fingers in the space below the chin and over the strap.

Uncomfortable buckling even after adjustments to the strap is an indication that the helmet is too small. The strap has to be tightened too if there is no downwards pull of the helmet as the opening of the user’s mouth is extended.

Helmet fit as per California law Chinstrap fit California Helmet fit as per California law

5. Some of the safety facts related to the bicycle helmet-

If you are fond of two-wheelers, then you should know that a helmet is the only thing that protects your head from injuries or impacts. Even though the law has been in place for quite some time if we look back to 2018 – our country has seen 1040 cyclists lose their lives. Many of these deaths could have been prevented by helmets, with head and brain injuries being the most common for victims. To determine the efficacy of bicycle helmets – Attewell, Glase, and McFadden (2001) carried out a meta-analysis. Their findings conclude helmets can minimize injury to the brain by 58%, while head injury could be reduced by 60%. You cannot be nonchalant if you are an adult, since the victim of 85% of bicycle deaths were adults aged 20+. Even though as of January 2020, 22 states and more than 201 localities throughout the country have laws for bicycle helmets, non-compliance is still very common.

If you or anyone you know has been involved in a bicycle or motorcycle-related accident, especially if there is another party/driver involved who may be liable to receive the blame – it is a good idea to file a report with the police at first. This will ensure that there is a detailed documentation of the circumstances involved in the accident. You should ask law enforcement to keep visual evidence of your bicycle and the injuries you have sustained, along with some scenes of accidents. Even if your injuries are minor, seek medical attention. Eyewitnesses will be of great value to support your claim so check if there are any. CCTV footage can be instrumental too. After you have compiled all documents that include receipts of medical bills, receipts to repair any damage to your bicycle – it is time to contact an attorney, preferably one who has expertise in dealing with victims of bicycle accidents. You must consult with an attorney before contacting the insurance company of the driver. Insurance companies tend to manipulate information related to the accident to support their cause – which is to prove that your negligence to not wear a helmet is partially responsible for your injuries too.

The damages that you might possibly be able to collect depends on several factors, like a) Severity of the injuries that you have sustained; b) Medical care costs and c) The circumstances that may have led to your accident. The compensation that you may be able to receive will include:

  • Wages you may have lost while being hospitalized
  • Payment for any medical bills that have accumulated
  • Any pain or suffering that has been inflicted on you
  • Consortium loss
  • Inability to enjoy life
  • Any other loss that you may have had to incur due to the accident

6. Type of helmets that needs to be worn under the law of California

According to the Department of Transportation, a helmet should have the following are the minimum requirements of a helmet that can be used in the state of California:

  • Thick lining: Polystyrene foam should be used to create at least one-inch inner lining.
  • Chin Straps: Sturdy chin straps should be riveted to the helmet.
  • Weight: A minimum weight of three pounds should be maintained, according to federal standards.
  • Helmet Design: The shell should protrude any component that is larger than one-fifth of 12cm / 1 inch.

A sticker to certify minimum DOT standards can be affixed on helmets – which is a must for all bicycle riders in the State of California

A chart containing the summary of California bike laws

law cali

Table of Contents

F. A. Q.s

Q1. Who should wear helmets in California?

Ans.: The California Vehicle Code states that teens and children listed 17 or below should have a helmet on whenever they are bike riding on the streets of California, or trails and bike paths. Adults who are 18 and above do not need to wear a helmet at any time except when required by local counties and authorities of bike paths.

Who should wear a helmet in california

Q2. When should you replace your helmets?

Ans.: Although manufacturers today are careful not to allow anything to hamper their reputation – a defective design or defective final product may find its way to the customers. Very often the cases are such that flaws are not noticeable unless the helmet is involved in any sort of accident and has failed to protect the user’s head. This is why Snell advises users to change their helmets after five years of use. If your helmet has failed in case of an accident, you can contact the specific attorney who can advise you to claim liability from the manufacturer against the failed helmet.

Q3. If I get myself into a bike helmet violation, then, how does the allocation of the fine that’s collected takes place?

Ans.: Keep in mind that any damages that will be paid to you will be reduced proportionately if it is found that you have been negligent leading to the circumstances of your accident, as per the law in the State of California. if an injured cyclist contributed to an accident, his or her damages will be reduced proportionately. To break this down, for example -if it has been proven during the trial that you have to take half the responsibility for your bicycle-related accident, while your lost income, medical bills, etc may tally up to $200,000, the amount recoverable from the insurance company of the negligent driver will be $100,000. So whatever the case, wear a helmet.

Q4. How am I supposed to ensure that my helmet meets the necessary legal standards?

Ans.: As per the Vehicle Code for the State of California, any helmet that is being used by a cyclist must be compliant with certain standards of fit, safety, and construction. The approved helmets have to further abide by safety and quality standards set by ASTM or CPSC while being compliant to either Snell or ANSI standards. The summary below will help to explain these standards better:

  • CPSC: They ensure that the helmet is not obstructing the vision of the rider. In case the rider is involved in a crash, the helmet should not fall off the rider’s head and minimize the energy of the impact being transferred to the rider’s head from a hard surface like pavement.
  • ASTM: These standards require helmets to pass several tests that are targeted to test how strong and stable the straps are, impact abrasion, and unique tests for helmets used for different types of riding. They are similar to ANSI standards.
  • Snell: They are the strictest, and must pass tests targeted for – I. Protection extent on the head of the user; II. Management of impact, and III. Positional stability.

Safety standard stickers California

Although these standards overlap a lot, each of the organizations above has distinctive methods of testing. Usually, for a helmet that has met the standards, stickers are used as approval markings. From a legal point of view, you can be penalized for using a helmet that has not been approved for safety and other standards. You will also find labels that denote manufacturer certifications for different standards.


You should keep in mind that injuries on bicycles are likely to be very extensive, with lots of both physical and mental trauma. A helmet is one of the best ways you can protect yourself from injuring your head while other protective gear can be used for parts of your body. It is better to be safe than sorry, and you should not undertake any means to put yourself in the line of danger. So why not pick up a good looking helmet today that is compliant with all the safety standards? You have the provision of trying out as many helmets as you can until you find the perfect one in items of looks, fit, and safety.

Useful Resources:

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Dion Lewis
My name is Dion Lewis.

I’ve been cycling from my childhood. When I was in high school, I started racing in our local competitions.

At my college life, I took a part time job in a bicycle shop and I learned how to repair and maintain bicycles professionally.

Though I love racing, mountain biking is another thing I do frequently. My friends, neighbors, and colleagues treat me as an avid rider and take my suggestions while they plan for a new bike or a bike gear.

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