The following question was submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "The Law Q&A," runs in the Champaign News Gazette.
What are the laws on operating a motorcycle? Are helmets ever required?
Illinois lets those who ride decide. Helmets are never required. Local ordinances can’t even try to require them.
We and Iowa are the last holdouts against some kind of helmet law. Neighboring Missouri requires helmets for all riders; Indiana for those under 18.
We once had a helmet law, but ditched it in 1969. Now, state law only requires that the “operator of a motorcycle, motor driven cycle or moped and every passenger thereon shall be protected by glasses, goggles or a transparent shield.”
Cyclists and their passengers must therefore wear either shatter-resistant glasses or sunglasses, or goggles, or be behind a windshield. Otherwise, the only other state law requirements are that passengers must ride on passenger seats, which must have footrests, and everyone must straddle the bike (unless they’re in a sidecar).
State law prohibits handgrips above head height of the operator, riding no-handed, and riding on one-wheel. Until 2013, wheelies and no-handed riding weren’t specifically prohibited, and the handgrip limit was shoulder height.
The only traffic law that’s different for motorcycles is a limited straight-on-red law. Since 2012, it lets motorcycles (and bicycles) proceed safely through a stop light that hasn’t changed for at least 120 seconds. But, only if that delay is because the light-changing device can’t detect bikes, and only outside of Chicago.
Federal law sets standards for manufacturing motorcycles, but leaves the regulation of their operation up to the states. It’s not entirely clear, but those federal regulations apparently require headlights to operate whenever a motorcycle’s engine is on.
Illinois briefly experimented with a helmet law, just after a 1966 Federal highway law threatened a 10% cut in highway funds to states without helmet laws. But in 1969, the state Supreme Court declared our helmet law unconstitutional.
The Court seemed to say that helmets were more about personal safety, which couldn’t be regulated, than about public safety, which could. As they put it: “The manifest function of the headgear requirement in issue is to safeguard the person wearing it—whether it is the operator or a passenger—from head injuries. Such a laudable purpose, however, cannot justify the regulation of what is essentially a matter of personal safety.”
A later Supreme Court case upheld an eye protection requirement for passengers. They said eye protections legitimately protected the public, since “a flying object or insect might strike the passenger in the eye, that the passenger might thereby disturb the driver and cause a loss of control of the motorcycle, endangering the operator, the passenger, and more importantly the public.”
Some say the Supreme Court changed its mind about the personal/public safety distinction when it upheld seat belt laws in 1986. But the legislature has resisted persistent efforts to pass any new helmet laws, so a new court challenge hasn’t been necessary.
And since the federal law tying highway funds to helmets was repealed in 1976, states like Illinois without helmet laws no longer risk losing money.