Most people and police believe if you have a D.O.T. sticker on a motorcycle helmet in Louisiana it is legal to use. It is not that simple. One issue is that the helmet used in Louisiana may not be an “approved” model by the state of Louisiana. This is not so simple an issue as it would seem. There are Louisiana, national D.O.T. and SNELL and European E.C.E. motorcycle helmet standards.

La. R.S. 32:190 provides no person shall operate or ride on any motorcycle, motor-driven cycle or motorized bicycle unless the person is equipped with and is wearing on the head a safety helmet of the type and design manufactured for use by operators of such vehicles, which shall be secured properly with a chin strap while the vehicle is in motion. All such safety helmets “shall meet such other specifications as shall be established by the commissioner.” This is very vague and unclear. Why? Currently there is no list of approved helmets in Louisiana. So all helmets in use are technically not legal for use as they have no.t been approved by the commissioner. Police only look for a D.O.T sicker but that is not what the La. law La. R.S. 32:190 states. The helmet must be on the published approved list by the Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety. No list has been published since 1983 and most those helmets that could have been listed are no longer made. I recently contacted the state Department of Public safety and received confirmation that there is no approved helmet list in existence.

There are many motorcycle helmet standards that include D.O.T., SNELL Foundation and the European E.C.E motorcycle helmet standards. La. R.S. 32:190 does not specify any of these specific known standards.

This can become an issue in an accident. The defendant will raise the issue that the lack of a required helmet contributed to the motorcycle rider’s injuries. The lack of an approved helmet issue arises where the motorcyclists is said to have what is known as a novelty helmet that does not have a D.O.T., SNELL or E.C.E. approved sticker on it. Just as with the lack of an endorsement issue, the defense must prove the lack of a helmet caused the motorcyclists injuries. In some factual scenarios, this is impossible for the defense.

Defendants have the burden to provide medical evidence that the lack of a helmet did in fact cause the injury otherwise comparative fault is not applicable.

If a helmet is D.O.T. approved, that does that mean that particular helmet met D.O.T. standards? Not necessarily! Why? It may surprise you that D.O.T. does not actually test helmets! The D.O.T. is a helmet standard that goes back to the 1970’s—an old outdated standard that offers minimum protection. The manufacturer self-certifies the helmet meets the standards. There have been cases where helmet manufacturers have not met the D.O.T. standards and have been sued successfully.

Also, even if a helmet did in fact meet the minimum D.O.T. standards, D.O.T. standards may not offer any substantial protection at particular speed at which a particular motorcyclists head hit the road. D.O.T. standards only protect up to a head impact at 13.4 mph, which is the upper limit DOT helmets are supposed to be designed to work. If rider is flung off or high-sides off the motorcycle, this is almost always exceeded. After that 13.4 m.p.h. speed no protection is offered as per the design. If the motorcyclist’s head were traveling well above 13.4 mph even a D.O.T. helmet would not any protection for brain injury from rotational or angular acceleration. There is much medical research verifying that brain damage occurs from rotational acceleration that cause acute subdural hematomas (ASHD) due to ruptured bridging of the veins. (See Biomechanics of Acute Subdural Hematoma, by Gennerelli and Thibault, The Journal of Trauma, 1982, Vo. 22, No. 8)

It gets more complicated.

In motorcycle crashes linear forces are the underlying cause of head injuries, such as laceration, contusion and skull fracture. But brain injuries, ( responsible for 60% of motorcycle fatalities according to the COST 327 Study), including concussion, axonal injury and subdural hematoma are caused by forces associated with rotational acceleration with both lateral and angular acceleration components. D.O.T. and SNELL standards do not protect against brain injuries caused by angular acceleration, as they are too stiff to do so. Helmets under the present D.O.T. and SNELL standards are designed to protect the head from being penetrated by hard objects. Unlike European helmet standards such as the E.C.E European helmet standards, which are softer and lighter helmets designed to offer somewhat more, but not complete protection, against brain damage from rotational and angular acceleration. Such brain injuries in motorcyclists was found to be responsible for 60% of motorcycle fatalities in Europe, as documented in the 1999 COST-327 Report Study. Europe changed their motorcycle helmet standards after the COST-327 study of 4700 helmeted motorcyclists who crashed. A redesign of helmets was recommended to protect motorcyclists from angular acceleration AHSD fatal brain injuries. It is hoped that new motorcycle helmet standards will be eventually adopted by the SNELL foundation will provide for protection from brain damage associated with rotational, linear and angular accelerations.

A 2009 NHTSA study on helmets found helmets to be only 27% effective in elimination of Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). I believe that is not an acceptable level of protection. Helmets are not as effective as they could be but helmet manufacturers only build helmets to meet the standards at the lowest cost possible.

A new company, 6D Helmets, has designed a motorcycle helmet that provides protection against brain injuries caused by rotational and angular acceleration that causes concussions and acute subdural hematoma.[1] The 6D helmet it is designed for off-road use but is legal for street use, D.O.T. approved. Only a 6D off-road model that is D.O.T. approved is available as of date. No street models are available. Bell also offers a Bell Flex 9 off-road helmet that protects against rotational acceleration. Lazer helmets of Belgium, used to offer a model with a membrane outer cover that protected against rotational acceleration. It is not longer sold due to lack of demand. It was an excellent helmet.

A good argument can be made that any helmet today would not have prevented the injuries a particular motorcyclist sustained and therefore the comparative negligence reduction in damages should be zero or a very low percentage of fault. Experiments of David Viano, Phd., M.D. at Wayne State University have shown that helmeted and unhelmet heads sustained the same degree angular acceleration when subjected to the same amount of impact from angular acceleration –the leading cause of fatal brain injuries in motorcyclists[i]. So how are modern motorcyclists wearing D.O.T. helmets protected from angular acceleration? Presently, (and sadly), they are not. And that is a very scary thought if you ride motorcycles. We need better helmets. For now, buy the best SNELL helmet you can and look for new models in the future. Unfortunately this will not happen until the helmet companies are sued by some lawyer who wins big, for the negligence of the helmet manufacturer that is making helmets that are far less safe then they could make to protect us all.

[1] See!angular-acceleration-/cwnn

By Glenn C McGovern

Attorney and MSF Basic Instructor