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If a motorcyclist isn’t wearing a helmet, can they still recover for injuries caused by another driver?

This is a question that comes up quite often in our motorcycle accident injury practice and the answer, generally, is “Yes.” There can, however, be some qualifications to this answer, as will be explained in greater detail below.

Accident statistics indicate that, in the majority of motorcycle / automobile accidents, the automobile driver is found to be at fault. In many cases the driver of the other vehicle simply did not see the motorcycle when changing lanes or making a turn. The fact that a motorcycle may be harder to see than an automobile does not relieve the automobile driver of his or her responsibility to exercise caution at all times.

In the question posed above, the central point is the “… injuries caused by another driver…” part. If you were involved in an accident and the accident was the other driver’s fault, the fact that you were not wearing a helmet means nothing since what you were not wearing was not the cause of the accident. Putting this in other words, the accident would have happened regardless of what you were not wearing.

Helmet Laws
There is no federal law requiring all motorcycle riders and passengers to wear helmets. Each state is therefore responsible for enacting its own helmet law and, as can be imagined, there is considerable variation in these laws from state to state. As examples of how helmet laws vary, consider these examples:

  • Arizona: Only motorcycle riders and passengers who are younger than 18 are required to wear helmets.
  • Colorado: Only motorcycle riders and passengers younger than 18 are required to wear helmets, but the helmet must meet certain specifications outlined in the helmet law.
  • Illinois: There is no law requiring motorcycle riders or passengers of any age to wear a helmet. Individual cities or counties are, however, free to require helmet use within their respective boundaries.

Negligence and Fault
Most accidents occur when someone is negligent because they did not exercise reasonable precautions that could have prevented an accident. In personal injury law, the party that is responsible for an accident is said to be at fault and liable for damages that are directly related to that accident. We can now turn to the issue of whether or not an injured party can collect damages if they could be considered to have contributed in some way to their own injury.

Each state has its own law regarding how any negligence on the part of the injured party is dealt with. In general, such laws are referred to as the principles of pure or modified comparative negligence.

Pure comparative negligence is based on the principle that an injured party is entitled to collect damages regardless of their degree or percentage of contribution to their own injuries. As an example of this doctrine, an accident victim will collect damages even if they are deemed to have been 99% responsible for the accident, although any damages they are awarded would be reduced by 99%!

In states that have adopted some form of the modified comparative negligence doctrine, the injured party can be prohibited from collecting damages if it can be shown that 1) they were at least 50% responsible for the accident or 2) they were more than 51% responsible. This is usually referred to as “50% bar” and “51% bar,” respectively. If the injured party is not barred from collecting damages, the damages awarded will still be reduced by their percentage of contribution to their accident.

Using the example of the motorcycle rider who was not wearing a helmet, we can summarize comparative negligence as follows:

Arizona: Pure comparative negligence. The rider who was not wearing a helmet can collect damages, but the damages awarded will be reduced by the percentage that not wearing a helmet contributed to his or her injuries.

Colorado: Modified comparative negligence with 50% bar. Our rider cannot collect damages if his or her negligence is deemed to be at least 50% or greater responsible for his or her injuries although damages can be awarded (bur reduced accordingly) for a 49% or less contribution to the injuries.

Illinois: Modified comparative negligence with 51% bar. Our rider cannot collect damages if the fact that he or she was not wearing a helmet is deemed to be more than 51% responsible for the injury, but can still recover damages although reduced by 50% or less.

The fact that someone was not wearing a helmet in a motorcycle accident does not prevent them from recovering damages after an accident. However, the damages awarded may be reduced to the extent that not wearing a helmet is deemed to have contributed to damages suffered in that accident.

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