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Motorcycle Helmets and the Law

Many bikers see laws requiring people to wear motorcycle helmets as an affront against their liberty. Unfortunately for those of us who like to ride free and feel the wind in our hair, the law of the state of New York regulates what we must wear on our heads. Despite constitutional challenges, New York Vehicle and Traffic Law 381(6), New York’s motorcycle helmet law, has been ruled constitutional repeatedly.

If you or someone you know has been pulled over for violating New York’s helmet law or riding a motorcycle without a helmet call our experienced motorcycle attorneys today for a free consultation.

New York’s motorcycle helmet law prohibits riding a motorcycle as a driver or passenger without wearing a helmet that does not meet federal standards. It must be noted that inadequately labeled helmets, or helmets that do not comply with DOT regulations may also incur tickets under VTL 318(6). The law also gives the commissioner of the New York department of motor vehicles the power to adopt regulations and safety standards with regard to motorcycle helmets. The only exception to the motorcycle helmet law being, that villages, towns, and cities can give permits to exempt members of groups that are conducting parades or public demonstrations from wearing helmets while riding in those parades or demonstrations.

Although some may wish to challenge the constitutionality of the use of motorcycle helmets in New York, case law at the trial level has determined that the Constitution does not protect the right to ride without a helmet. Unfortunately, there are no strong arguments in favor of overturning the case law and an appeal is not likely to change the law at this point.

The case of People v. Bennett is the leading case in New York on the constitutional law of motorcycle helmets. In this case Mr. Bennett was pulled over for riding his motorcycle unlawfully without his helmet in violation of VTL 381(6). Mr. Bennett argued four points:

  1. The law was enacted so that the state could access federal highway funding only, with no other reason.
  2. The law was unconstitutional because it discriminated against motorcyclists.
  3. There was no reasonable footing that linked the law and its purpose.
  4. The law was not a constitutional use of the state’s 10th Amendment right to regulate the health, safety, and morals of the public.

Unfortunately for Mr. Bennett and bikers all over the state of New York the judge disposed of each of these points with a well reasoned and a legally correct analysis. The court reasoned that, first, the fact that purpose of the law was intertwined with qualifying for federal highway funding had no relation to the constitutional analysis of the law.

Second, although it appears that the law discriminated directly against motorcyclists as a class, the court distinguished VTL 381(6) and categorized it as a law that applies to all persons equally, should they decide to ride a motorcycle or be a passenger.

Third, the court examined each of Mr. Bennett’s statistical exhibits, and decided that the New York legislature could have decided in favor of not requiring helmets, or in favor of requiring helmets. The court explained that it could not replace the legislature’s judgment and that it was reasonable for the assembly and senate to believe that persons falling for motorcycles at speed could experience more serious injuries without motorcycle helmets. Because the court could not replace the legislature’s judgment, and the legislature believed the theory that motorcycle helmets would be a benefit to the health of motorcyclists in the state of New York, there was a reasonable footing for the law.

Fourth, the court concluded that the state of New York appropriately exercised its constitutional right under the Tenth Amendment to regulate the health, safety, and morals of the public in enacting VTL 381(6). The power of the states to regulate the health, safety, and morals of the public is known as the police power. The police power flows from the Tenth Amendment's mandate that states have all the rights and powers not exclusively granted to the federal government in the rest of the Constitution. The police power allows states to many things to protect their residents such as enact criminal and traffic laws, create health codes, regulate divorce, and regulate will probate issues.

Although Mr. Bennett argued that riding without a helmet was a private matter only effecting those that chose to ride without a helmet the court disagreed. The court explained that insurance and medical costs were shared among the pool of insured so, allowing those who wanted to ride without a helmet to do so would effect insurance costs, and thus effect the welfare of others. Ultimately Mr. Bennett was fined $10.00, and left court with unfavorable case law.

Despite being uncomfortable and annoying, helmets are required by the law and there is no reasonable way to approach contesting helmet laws using the Constitution. If you are ticketed riding without a helmet, you may face a maximum fine of $100.00 and a jail sentence of 30 days. If you or someone you know has been ticketed for riding without a helmet call our experienced motorcycle attorneys today for a free consultation.

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