Like a lot of legal questions, the question of whether Oregon has a mandatory bicycle helmet law is answered with “it depends”.
For bicycle operators under he age of 16 a helmet is required if they are operating a bicycle on a public street or on premises open to the public (like parking lots) per ORS 814.485 Failure to wear protective headgear. For a premises to be considered open to the public it must be made open to the general public for the use of motor vehicles. ORS 801.400 Premises open to the public.
ORS 814.486 Endangering bicycle operator or passenger extends the helmet requirement to bicycle passengers, so if the operator of the bicycle allows a passenger (like cargo bikes, bikes with kid carriers, or pedicabs) under the age of 16 to ride without a helmet the operator can be cited.
Summed up, if a person is 16 or over, or if they are under 16 and not operating their bicycle on a public street or anywhere that motor vehicles are allowed to operate, there is no legal requirement to wear a helmet.
However, even in those situations where a bicycle operator under the age of 16 is operating in an area where a helmet is required, there are some exemptions from the helmet requirement:
1.) If the wearing of a helmet would violate a religious belief or practice;
2.) If the person operating the bicycle is operating a tricycle designed to be ridden by children; and
3.) If the person operating the bicycle is operating a three wheeled non-motorized vehicle on a beach while it is closed to motor vehicle traffic.
But what happens if a person required to wear a helmet fails to do so?
ORS 814.485 sets the fine at $25 for the bicycle operator. However that statutes companion statutes allows the fine to shift to a child’s parents or guardians, or can levy a separate fine on an adult.
If a child is 11 years of age or younger, the violation for failing to wear a helmet MUST be charged against their parent, guardian or any other person with legal responsibility for the safety and welfare of the child.
If a child is between 12 and 16 years of age the violation may be issued to an adult, as above, but also may be issued to the child him- or herself.
An adult could also be charged with violating ORS 814.486 Endangering bicycle operator or passenger if a child under 16 that they have legal responsibility for operates a bicycle without a helmet. It is important to note that there is no knowledge or intent element to this violation, so even if the adult did not know the child was riding without a helmet they could still be charged with the violation.
Even though the penalty for violating ORS 814.485 or ORS 814.486 is a modest $25, a person who violates the law for the first time is not required to pay the fine if they prove to the satisfaction of the court that the underage bicycle operator has protective headgear.
Oregon’s Vehicle Code on bicycle helmets also contains a statute that prohibits evidence of failure to wear a helmet from being used in a civil trial where a bicycle operator is injured or killed and where damages are being sought. ORS 814.489 says such evidence “shall not be admissible, applicable, or effective to reduce the amount of damages or to constitute a defense to an action for damages[.]”
Charley Gee is an Oregon bicycle and pedestrian attorney with Swanson, Thomas, Coon & Newton in Portland, Oregon.