California Vehicle Code 27803 VC states that drivers operating a motorcycle in California must wear safety helmets. This rule also applies to passengers of motorcycles.
There are three important points to know about Vehicle Code 27803.
- A motorcyclist that violates VC 27803 will receive a fine of $197.00.
- Legal defenses are available to motorcycle drivers that violate Vehicle Code 27803. This means they don’t have to automatically plead guilty to a no helmet ticket. It’s in the driver’s best interests, though, to consult with an attorney before challenging a ticket.
- A motorcyclist cannot ignore a ticket for operating a motorcycle without a helmet. This ignorance will result in a new charge of failure to appear, per California Vehicle Code 40508. Failure to appear, under California law, may be charged as a misdemeanor.
The full text of the statute reads as follows:
27803. (a) A driver and any passenger shall wear a safety helmet meeting requirements established pursuant to Section 27802 when riding on a motorcycle, motor-driven cycle, or motorized bicycle.
(b) It is unlawful to operate a motorcycle, motor-driven cycle, or motorized bicycle if the driver or any passenger is not wearing a safety helmet as required by subdivision (a).
(c) It is unlawful to ride as a passenger on a motorcycle, motor-driven cycles, or motorized bicycle if the driver or any passenger is not wearing a safety helmet as required by subdivision (a).
(d) This section applies to persons who are riding on motorcycles, motor-driven cycles, or motorized bicycles operated on the highways.
(e) For the purposes of this section, “wear a safety helmet” or “wearing a safety helmet” means having a safety helmet meeting the requirements of Section 27802 on the person’s head that is fastened with the helmet straps and that is of a size that fits the wearing person’s head securely without excessive lateral or vertical movement.
(f) This section does not apply to a person operating, or riding as a passenger in, a fully enclosed three-wheeled motor vehicle that is not less than seven feet in length and not less than four feet in width, and has an unladen weight of 900 pounds or more, if the vehicle meets or exceeds all of the requirements of this code, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, and the rules and regulations adopted by the United States Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
(g) In enacting this section, it is the intent of the Legislature to ensure that all persons are provided with an additional safety benefit while operating or riding a motorcycle, motor-driven cycle, or motorized bicycle.
Our California motorcycle accident attorneys will highlight the following in this article:
- 1. Vehicle Code 27803 VC – Motorcyclists in California must wear safety helmets
- 2. The penalties for driving a motorcycle without a helmet
- 3. Legal defenses if a driver violates Vehicle Code 27803
- 4. Violation of Vehicle Code 27803 VC and traffic school
- 5. Operating a motorcycle without a helmet and criminal charges
- 6. Ignoring a ticket for violating VC 27803
- 7. Effect of not wearing a motorcycle helmet on a personal injury lawsuit
- 8. Laws related to Vehicle Code 27803 VC
1. Vehicle Code 27803 VC – Motorcyclists in California must wear safety helmets
According to California Vehicle Code 27803, a person operating a motorcycle in California must wear a safety helmet.
VC 27803 states:
- A driver and any passenger shall wear a safety helmet meeting requirements established pursuant to Section 27802 when riding on a motorcycle, motor-driven cycle, or motorized bicycle.
- It is unlawful to operate a motorcycle, motor-driven cycle, or motorized bicycle if the driver or any passenger is not wearing a safety helmet as required by subdivision (a).1
Please take special note that the above language includes passengers. This means motorcyclists in California are required by law to make sure that they, and their passengers, are wearing safety helmets.
2. The penalties for driving a motorcycle without a helmet
A driver that violates Vehicle Code 27803 will receive a ticket and he must pay a corresponding fine. The fine for operating a motorcycle without a helmet is $197.00.2
Motorists or motorcyclists that receive traffic tickets in California sometimes receive points on their DMV driving record in addition to a fine. A person violating VC 27803, however, is not assessed any points.
This is a good thing since points placed on a person’s driving record are ultimately reported to his insurance carrier. The result is typically an increase in the person’s insurance rates for several years.
A further problem occurs when points accumulate over time. If a driver in California accumulates a certain number of points within a 1-,2- or 3-year period, he can get a negligent operator license suspension. If this happens, the DMV can either suspend or revoke the motorist’s driving privileges.
Please note, however, that either of these actions will require a California DMV hearing.
3. Legal defenses if a driver violates Vehicle Code 27803
A motorcyclist that receives a ticket for not wearing a helmet does not have to automatically plead guilty to it, or admit he was at fault. He can always challenge the ticket by raising a legal defense. If this is done, though, it’s best for the motorcyclist to gain the assistance of an attorney.
3.1 Common defenses for not wearing a safety helmet
There are three common defenses for violating Vehicle Code 27803 VC. These are:
- The officer made a mistake.
- There was an emergency that prevented the motorcyclist from wearing a helmet.
- The motorcyclist was not actually operating the motorcycle.
Please know that any legal defense will require supporting evidence. The best evidence typically includes:
- Surveillance video
3.2 Get help from a lawyer
Motorcyclists can represent themselves when challenging a ticket for not wearing a helmet. But, it’s in the motorcyclist’s best interests to contact a California attorney for help.
Help from a lawyer is critical for three main reasons. These are:
- Prosecutors typically give better deals to defendants with lawyers.
- Defense attorneys know how to get charges reduced and dismissed.
- If a defendant has an attorney, the defendant does not have to go to court. The defendant’s lawyer can go on his behalf.
4. Violation of Vehicle Code 27803 VC and traffic school
Motorcyclists that violate VC 27803 do not have to attend traffic school. But, they can volunteer to do so.
The benefits, though, might not be worth the time and expense. If a driver chooses to attend traffic school, he must still pay his fine.3 Further, a benefit of traffic school is that it most often removes any points from a person’s driving record. Motorcyclists, however, will not enjoy this benefit since they do not receive points on their record for violating VC 27803.
In general, drivers can choose to go to traffic school if:
- The driver has a valid driver’s license;
- The offense occurred while the driver was driving a noncommercial vehicle; and,
- The ticket is for an infraction that is a moving violation.
5. Operating a motorcycle without a helmet and criminal charges
The State of California does not file criminal charges against a motorcyclist if he violates Vehicle Code 27803 VC. This is because it’s not a crime for a person to drive a motorcycle without a helmet.
Violations of VC 27803 are infractions under California law. Violators are not subject to incarceration or any other criminal penalties.
6. Ignoring a ticket for violating VC 27803
Drivers cannot ignore a ticket for violating Vehicle Code 27803 VC. Ignoring a ticket means two things. These are:
- The motorcyclist violates a new law, California Vehicle Code 40508 VC, for the failure to appear in court on a traffic citation; and,
- The motorcyclist may receive penalties for violating VC 40508.
6.1 Violation of Vehicle Code 40508 VC
Upon receiving a traffic ticket in California, the offender is obligated to sign a written promise to appear in court.
If the driver willfully fails to appear as promised, he violates Vehicle Code 40508 VC.4 The driver willfully fails to appear when he is willingly a no-show. It is not a defense if the driver did not intend to break the law.5
It also does not matter whether the offending driver is guilty or innocent of the underlying traffic citation.6 He violates Vehicle Code 40508 just by breaking a promise to:
- Appear in court,
- Appear to pay bail,
- Pay bail in installments,
- Pay a fine within the time authorized, or
- Comply with any condition of the court.7
6.2 Penalties for violating VC 40508
Violation of Vehicle Code 40508 VC is a misdemeanor. The penalties are:
- Up to six months in county jail, and/or
- A fine of up to $1,000.8
7. Effect of not wearing a motorcycle helmet on a personal injury lawsuit
Motorcycle accident lawsuits are common in California. These lawsuits are typically filed because a person was injured, and that person wants to recover damages from his injuries.
The best way to explain the effect of a motorcyclist not wearing a helmet on a personal injury suit is to consider:
- An injured party suing the non-helmet wearing motorcycle driver; and,
- The motorcyclist suing another person.
7.1 Injured party suing a non-helmet wearing motorcycle driver
A motorcyclist that is not wearing a helmet can very well get involved in an accident and injure another party. If the injured party later files a lawsuit against the motorcycle driver, the driver may be found “negligent.”
California law defines “negligence” as the failure to use reasonable care to prevent harm to oneself or to others. Regarding auto accidents, negligent drivers are at fault for the accident and may have to pay for any damages caused.
Negligence “per se” is a legal theory in which negligence is presumed based upon a defendant’s violation of a statute or ordinance
This means a driver would be negligent per se if operating a motorcycle without a helmet because he would be in violation of VC 27803.
7.2 Motorcycle driver suing another person
Some people mistakenly believe that a non-helmet wearing motorcycle driver cannot file a personal injury lawsuit. Violating Vehicle Code 27803 does not prohibit a motorcyclist from suing another person if that person caused injury. But, not wearing a helmet could reduce any monetary award that the motorcyclist ultimately receives.
California follows comparative fault laws in motorcycle accidents in which drivers are not wearing helmets. Comparative fault laws are slightly technical. They basically mean that if a motorcyclist was partially at fault in causing injuries (because he was not wearing a helmet), any damage award recovered gets reduced based on the motorcyclist’s degree of fault.
8. Laws related to Vehicle Code 27803 VC
There are three laws related to VC 27803. These include:
- Required position of equipment on a motorcycle;
- Sale of motorcycle helmets that don’t comply with DMV requirements; and,
- Riding bicycles within bike lanes.
8.1 Required position of equipment on a motorcycle
California Vehicle Code 27801 places requirements on the positioning of a motorcycle’s seat and handlebars.
The section states:
A person shall not drive a two-wheel motorcycle that is equipped with either of the following:
- A seat so positioned that the driver, when sitting astride the seat, cannot reach the ground with his or her feet.
- Handlebars so positioned that the hands of the driver, when upon the grips, are more than six inches above his or her shoulder height when sitting astride the seat.
A violation of VC 27801 results in a fine of $197.00. The driver also receives one point on his DMV driving record.
8.2 Sale of motorcycle helmets that don’t comply with DMV requirements
Under Vehicle Code 27802 (a) VC, the DMV can adopt certain requirements that establish safety standards for motorcycle helmets.9
Vehicle Code 27802 (b) makes it unlawful for a person to sell, or offer for sale, any safety helmet that does not meet requirements established by the DMV.10
Violators of VC 27802 (b) receive a fine of $197.00. No points, however, are placed on their driving records.
8.3 Riding bicycles within bike lanes
California Vehicle Code 21208 states that bikers must ride their bicycles within bike lanes whenever they have been established.11
VC 21208 does provide four exceptions to this rule. A bicyclist may leave a bike lane when:
- Overtaking and passing another biker, a vehicle, or a pedestrian.
- Preparing for a turn at an intersection or into a driveway.
- Necessary to avoid a hazardous condition.
- Approaching a place where a right turn is authorized.12
A violation of Vehicle Code 21208 results in a fine of $197.00. No points are placed on a biker’s DMV driving record.13
For cases in Nevada, please visit our page on NRS 486.321 – motorcycle helmet laws in Nevada.
- California Vehicle Code 27803 (a) and (b) VC. See also Easyriders Freedom F.I.G.H.T. v. Hannigan (9th Cir. Cal., 1996), 92 F.3d 1486.
- See DMV penalty chart. See also Department of California Highway Patrol v. Superior Court (Cal. App. 6th Dist., 2008), 158 Cal. App. 4th 726, 70 Cal. Rptr. 3d 280.
- See California Courts website.
- California Vehicle Code 40508 VC.
- CALCRIM 2240, endnote 1: Someone commits an act willfully when he or she does it willingly or on purpose. It is not required that he or she intend to break the law, hurt someone else, or gain any advantage.
- See same.
- California Vehicle Code 40508 VC, endnote 1.
- California Penal Code 19 PC. Except in cases where a different punishment is prescribed by any law of this state, every offense declared to be a misdemeanor is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or by fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both. See also People v. Elkins (Cal. App. Dep’t Super. Ct., 1992), 12 Cal. App. 4th Supp. 1, 16 Cal. Rptr. 2d 504.
- California Vehicle Code 27802 (a) VC.
- California Vehicle Code 27802 (b) VC.
- California Vehicle Code 21208 (a) VC.
- California Vehicle Code 21208 (a)(1) – (a)(4) VC.
- See DMV.org, above.