California Motorcycle Helmet Laws

Under state law, you must wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle in California.
Written by Maxine Boyko
Reviewed by Kathleen Flear
All motorcycle operators and passengers are required by law to wear helmets at all times in California.
According to motorcycle safety data compiled by the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
, there were 5,014 motorcyclist fatalities in 2019 alone, accounting for 14% of all traffic fatalities that year. Many states began introducing motorcycle helmet laws in the 1960s to bring down the motorcycle fatality rate.  
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Do you have to wear a motorcycle helmet in California?

According to
California Vehicle Code Section 27803
, all riders and passengers of all ages must wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle. The law also applies to motor-driven cycles and mopeds. 
California law also requires helmets to be properly fitted, meaning the helmet forms to the rider’s head—so there is no lateral or vertical helmet movement—and the straps must be fastened at all times. 
Additionally, the NHTSA has
minimum safety regulations
for motorcycle helmets that must meet the following requirements: 
  • Weighs at least three pounds.
  • Has a chin strap attached with sturdy rivets.
  • Has approximately one-inch thick firm polystyrene foam lining the inside.
  • Limited protrusions.
California motorcyclists who follow these regulatory standards are encouraged to affix DOT labels to their helmets. These labels help law enforcement quickly identify safety-compliant helmets when out on the road. 

Exceptions to California’s motorcycle helmet law

California’s motorcycle helmet law does not always apply. An operator or passenger is exempt from the law if the motor vehicle is: 
  • Three-wheeled
  • Over seven feet in length and wider than four feet
  • Over 900 pounds (unladen)
The vehicle must also be in compliance with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and the rules and regulations adopted by the DOT and NHTSA. 

Penalties for breaking California’s motorcycle helmet law

If you’re in violation of California’s motorcycle helmet law, the police can stop and ticket you, and you may face further financial setbacks in court. The penalty for riding without a helmet is up to a $250 fine and/or a maximum probation time of one year. 
If you’re in an accident, California’s pure comparative negligence law could further penalize you. This rule assigns a percentage of liability to the victim and consequently adjusts how much compensation you’re eligible to receive for injuries. 
If you fail to wear a helmet and the court determines you to be 50% liable for your brain injury, for example, you would only receive $50,000 out of a possible $100,000 insurance claim settlement.

Why it’s important to wear a motorcycle helmet

Not wearing a helmet doesn’t just put you at risk financially or legally, but physically as well.
According to the
, wearing a helmet reduces the risk of motorcycle accident brain injury by nearly 70 percent. The NHTSA estimates that helmets prevented 1,772 motorcyclist fatalities in 2015 alone and that if all motorcyclists had worn helmets, 740 more lives could have been saved.
California passed its helmet law in 1992, requiring everyone, regardless of age, to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle. After one year, the number of the state’s
motorcycle fatalities dropped
by a whopping 37.5%. The data doesn’t lie—wearing protective headgear is the best way to safeguard yourself from injury and death. 

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