California Bicycle Helmet Law
California Law—The Basics:
- Cyclists aged 18 and older are not required to wear a bicycle helmet while riding a bike.1
- Cyclists under the age of 18 are required to wear a bicycle helmet while riding a bike.2
California Law—Going Deeper:
Want to spark an argument, or at least get a debate going? Bring up the subject of bicycle helmets. Want to really turn the heat up? Start talking about mandatory bicycle helmet laws. While advice abounds from cyclists and non-cyclists alike about the necessity of wearing a helmet while riding, there is, as in physics, an equal and opposite reaction against that advice. For every argument claiming that bicycle helmets are a necessary safety measure, there is an argument claiming that the safety benefits of bicycle helmets are seriously overrated.
What’s a cyclist to do? This is an area where the individual cyclist must be allowed to weigh the evidence and decide for themselves. And that freedom for cyclists to weigh the evidence and the risks and decide for themselves is the approach taken in California law, with a significant caveat that cyclists must be aware of if they are injured in a bicycle crash (see below). There’s no law preventing a cyclist from wearing a helmet, but there’s no law requiring a helmet either. It’s up to the individual cyclist.
Well, at least for adult cyclists. In California, as in every other state in the nation, there is no statewide all-ages mandatory bicycle helmet law. However, as in many states (and even some localities), there is a mandatory statewide bicycle helmet law for cyclists under the age of 18. Let’s take a closer look to see what is and isn’t required.
In California, if you are under the age of 18, you are required to wear an approved, properly fitted and fastened bicycle helmet3 (1) if you are either operating or riding as a passenger on a bicycle (2) upon a street, bikeway, or any other public bicycle path or trail.4 This requirement also applies to passengers riding in a restraining seat attached to the bicycle, or in a trailer towed by the bicycle.5
So let’s say you’re under the age of 18, and you’re riding your bike on a public road, or on a public bikeway, bicycle path, or trail—you’re required to wear a helmet. But if you’re on private property, no helmet required.
But what about sidewalks? California law is somewhat opaque on this point, but in fact sidewalks are included in the law,6 and cyclists under 18 are required to wear a helmet while riding on the sidewalk.
Unlike the bicycle helmet law in Oregon, where cyclists are exempted from the requirement to wear a helmet if it would violate their religious belief or practice,7 in California the bicycle helmet law applies to every cyclist under the age of 18, regardless of religious belief of practice.
Although California doesn’t have an all-ages mandatory helmet law, there is an all-ages mandatory law in at least one park in California. Bidwell Park (in the city of Chico) requires bicycle helmets for all ages when riding off pavement in Middle and Upper Park.
Failure to wear a helmet when required is punishable by a $25 fine,8 and either the parent or legal guardian, the under-18 cyclist, or both are liable for payment of the fine.
But rather than impose the $25 fine, California has given cyclists the option to treat the citation as a fix-it ticket. If the parent or legal guardian presents proof within 120 days to the law enforcement agency that issued the citation that the cyclist has an approved helmet and has taken a local bicycle safety course or a related bicycle safety course (if one is available) as prescribed by authorities in the local jurisdiction, then the citation will not be sent to the traffic court and the fine will not be imposed.9
Caveat: Cyclists Beware
A traffic citation isn’t the only problem facing California cyclists who ride without a helmet. What if a cyclist is not wearing a helmet and is injured or killed in a crash? If the cyclist is under 18 and riding without a helmet despite the mandatory helmet law, the cyclist’s lack of a helmet may become an issue in negotiations with the insurance company (if the crash was due to another person’s negligence) and at trial. California is a “comparative negligence” state, and the 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. If this happens, the cyclist’s compensation would be reduced by the percentage of liability apportioned to the cyclist for his or her injuries.
But what about adult cyclists? They’re not required to wear a helmet in California, so if an adult cyclist is riding without a helmet and is injured to another person’s negligence, the cyclist shouldn’t be held liable for failing to wear a helmet, right?
Unfortunately, the adult cyclist’s lack of a helmet might be an issue in negotiations, and at trial, and the insurance company might argue that the adult cyclist should be held liable for a percentage of his or her own injuries.
This might seem fair, but it isn’t. Here’s why: Suppose a driver carelessly injures a pedestrian who is legally within the crosswalk. By law, the driver should have yielded to the pedestrian, but didn’t. But now the driver is blaming the pedestrian for not wearing a helmet. If this blame-shifting seems ludicrous, that’s because it is ludicrous. Nobody would ever blame a law-biding pedestrian who was injured by a careless driver for not wearing a helmet while walking in the crosswalk. But when a negligent driver injures a cyclist who isn’t wearing a helmet, that blame-shifting is exactly what happens.
The offense described in this section is a traffic infraction. The fine for failure of a bicycle operator or rider to wear an approved, properly fitted and fastened bicycle helmet is $25.10
If You’ve Been Injured in a Crash
Do not communicate with the driver’s insurance company before consulting with an attorney. Most cyclists want to be fair and reasonable with the insurance company. Unfortunately, when you communicate with the insurance company, they are gathering information to be used against you later. What you see as an effort on your part to communicate a fair and honest account of the accident will be seen by the insurance company as an opportunity to gather evidence in support of their argument that your negligence caused the accident.
Contact bicyclelaw.com or another personal injury attorney who understands bicycling. While many attorneys are competent to handle general injury cases, make sure your attorney has experience and is familiar with:
- Bicycle traffic laws
- Negotiating bicycle accident cases with insurance companies
- Trying bicycle accident cases in court
- The prevailing prejudice against cyclists by motorists and juries
- The names and functions of all bicycle components
- The speed bikes travel as well as braking and cornering
- Bicycle handling skills, techniques, and customs
- How to get the full replacement value property damage estimates for your bicycle
- Establishing the value of lost riding time
- Leading bicycle accident reconstruction experts
- Licensed forensic bicycle engineers
- Establishing the value of permanent diminished riding ability
For more information
For More Information:
- To check for local Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Laws in California, see Bicycle Helmet Laws at Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute.
- For information about protecting yourself with insurance, see Insurance Advice.
- For information on avoiding accidents before they occur, see How to Avoid Car-On-Bike Accidents.
For More Information About Mandatory Bicycle Helmet laws:
- Related Article: Cyclists Are Dying In Traffic. Will Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Laws Save Them From The Drivers Who Are Taking Their Lives? Part 1
- Related Article: Cyclists Are Dying In Traffic. Will Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Laws Save Them From The Drivers Who Are Taking Their Lives? Part 2