Helmet Laws in New England States

New England has one of the oldest and most interconnected transportation systems of rail, highway and bike paths in the nation. It’s not uncommon for motorcycle clubs and individuals to organize rides that venture from one New England state to the next, often on scenic byways.

Beware, though, these states have their own individual motorcycle regulations (particularly pertaining to helmets), and your compliance in one state won’t necessarily carry over to another.

In general, violation of motorcycle helmet law alone won’t render your claim moot, but it may ultimately have a bearing on how much you’re entitled to collect. Understanding your responsibilities pursuant to each New England state’s motorcycle laws will help ensure you have the best chance of a full and fair recovery of damages in the event you are injured in a crash.

At Jeffrey Glassman Injury Lawyers, our motorcycle accident attorneys in Boston know that Massachusetts has some of the most stringent motorcycle regulations in New England, particularly as it pertains to helmet laws.

Massachusetts Motorcycle Helmet Law

If you are an out-of-state motorcyclist who is injured after crossing state lines into Massachusetts, it’s necessary to understand that all riders and passengers – regardless of age or experience – are required to wear DOT-approved helmets, per MGL ch. 90, section 7. This law was enacted in the late 1960s, and it makes the Commonwealth one of 19 states that have a “universal helmet law,” meaning it pertains to all riders. Other states only require helmets for certain riders, usually passengers or operators under the age of 18 or 21, or those who lack medical insurance.

Vermont Motorcycle Helmet Law

Vermont is another state with a universal helmet law. Specifically, 23 VSA section 1256, which states a person may not operate OR ride on a motorcycle on a highway unless he or she wears the proper type of protective headgear that conforms to federal motor vehicle safety standards, as set forth in 49 CFR 571.218. Most states adhere to Standard No. 218, which stipulates the required durability of each helmet and how much force they can withstand.

The state does not require riders to wear goggles or other eye protection if they have a face shield that provides eye and face protection.

The helmet law doesn’t apply to those in “fully enclosed autocycles,” which are autocycles equipped with a windshield, a full top and side enclosures.

Maine Motorcycle Helmet Law

Maine does have a motorcycle helmet law, but it is not a universal requirement for all riders.

Per Title 29-A, section 2083, those required to wear DOT-approved helmets on the road in Maine are:

  • Passengers under 18-years-old on a motorcycle, moped or attached side car;
  • Operators under 18 of motorcycles or mopeds;
  • Operators of mopeds or motorcycles operating with a learner’s permit or less than one year of experience since completing the driving test;
  • Any passenger of an operator who is required to wear a helmet.

Operators of motorcycles or mopeds or parents/ guardians may not allow someone under 18 to ride in violation of this provision.

New Hampshire Motorcycle Helmet Law

New Hampshire’s motorcycle helmet law is a bit confusing. First, let’s point out what IS clear under New Hampshire Revised Statutes section 265.122, which is that if you are 18 or older, whether you are an operator or passenger, you are NOT required to wear a helmet.

It gets tricky when it comes to under-18 riders. The law does clearly say that anyone under 18 who drives or rides on a motorcycle OR autocycle must wear DOT-approved protective headgear (i.e., a helmet). But in another line of that same statute, it says if federal law is altered such that mandatory protective headgear by motorcycle occupants under 18 isn’t required as a condition of the state receiving federal funds, then paragraph requiring helmets is void.

Also note that New Hampshire does not recognize out-of-state motorcycle learner’s permits.

Rhode Island Motorcycle Helmet Law

Rhode Island doesn’t require all riders to don a helmet, but it does protect younger and less experienced operators. The state did have a universal helmet law, but it was repealed back in 1976, though it continued to require passengers to wear helmets.

Then in 1992, the law was changed again. As of this writing, R.I.G.L. 31-10.1-4 states that DOT-approved helmets are required for those on motorcycles, motor scooters and motor-driven cycles if:

  • They are younger than 21;
  • They have less than one year of experience, regardless of their age;
  • They are passengers.

The law also makes it illegal to operate a motorcycle if your passenger isn’t wearing a helmet.

Connecticut Motorcycle Helmet Law

Up until 1976, Connecticut had a universal helmet law that required anyone on a motorcycle to wear protective headgear. At the time, the U.S. Department of Transportation imposed sanctions on states that didn’t comply with the national helmet use standard. When Congress removed the sanctioning authority of the DOT, several states (including Connecticut) repealed their motorcycle helmet laws.

In its place, Connecticut adopted a partial helmet law, codified in CGS 14-289g and -40a. It requires all motorcycle operators and passengers under 18 to wear a helmet and requires each applicant for a motorcycle endorsement – regardless of age – to wear a helmet while operating a motorcycle with a training permit.

The law has been revisited several times by state lawmakers since then, but so far no mandatory motorcycle helmet bill has gained traction.

How Not Wearing a Motorcycle Helmet Might Impact Your Injury Lawsuit

The decision not to wear a motorcycle helmet won’t stop you from successfully pursuing injury damages against at-fault defendants. However, defendants in some states have succeeded in having damage awards reduced by asserting the so-called “motorcycle helmet defense.” The general idea of this legal theory, as noted by study authors published in the Ohio State Law Journal, is that failure to wear a helmet is:

  • Negligence per se, if it is a violation of statute;
  • An assumption of risk;
  • A substantial contribution to damages and therefore precludes recovering for those damages that could have otherwise been mitigated or avoided.

Case law in each state will dictate whether this is a viable defense (with most relying on prior case law in similar “seat belt defense” cases). It’s worth understanding, especially if you’re riding in a state that mandates motorcycle helmets.

Defendants in Massachusetts may have a more difficult time asserting the motorcycle helmet defense than in some states. In Massachusetts, the 1931 SJC case of Kenyon v. Hathaway established that violation of safety-related statutes may be admissible as evidence of negligence, but it’s not considered conclusive.

Further, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in the 1992 case of Shahzade v. C.J. Mabardy declined to allow jurors to hear the seat belt defense to establish comparative negligence absent expert witness testimony.

Similarly, state law pertaining to bicycle helmets specifically states the failure to use one is not to be used as evidence of contributory negligence in a civil action.

Auto Insurance Differences When Crossing State Lines

In addition to variations on traffic laws by state, auto insurance rules and coverage are different too. In general, all motorists must carry a minimum amount of coverage in case they cause injury or damage to someone else. Beyond that, the particulars can range a great deal.

Your auto insurance will follow you in all 50 states, no matter where you go. Many policies stipulate coverage limits will adjust to meet whatever is required in the state where the crash occurs. For example, if you’re a resident in Massachusetts, which requires a minimum liability limit of $20,000 per person and $40,000 per crash, and you’re involved in a collision in Connecticut, which requires liability coverage of at least $25,000 per person and $50,000 per crash, your insurance will automatically increase to that minimum level. It doesn’t work the other way though; minimum limits won’t decrease just because you’ve crossed state lines.

If you’re driving in a no-fault state (like Massachusetts), where your own insurer pays personal injury protection (PIP) and your policy is issued in a fault state (also known as a tort state), your insurance policy will also adjust to meet what’s required where the crash occurs.

Note however that in Massachusetts, motorcyclists are specifically excluded from PIP coverage, so motorcyclists from tort states who crash in Boston probably won’t be able to collect PIP anyway.

Contact Jeffrey Glassman Injury Lawyers today for a free and confidential consultation
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