11 Motorcycle Laws That Vary State-By-State
In 1774, John Adams said, “We are a government of laws, not men.” Theodore Roosevelt said, “”No man is above the law and no man is below it: nor do we ask any man’s permission when we ask him to obey it.”
Over the centuries, countless laws have been made to cover nearly every aspect of society, and with the dawn of the motorcycle age more than a century ago, a whole new realm of possibilities for legal eagles to legislate, promulgate and at times obfuscate opened up.
In the U.S., federal, state and even local ordinances may apply, which in some instances may be inconsistent with one another or even in conflict. We have covered some of the federal regulations that apply to motorcycles, components and riding gear such as helmet safety performance standards, face shield performance standards, and motorcycle tire performance standards.
As a service to our readers, we also would like educate on the some motorcycle laws, and in some cases laws that are unique to but a few states.
Some areas to be aware of that can pose problems for riders who cross state lines are those that can vary widely from one state to the next and within a state and also can vary between on and off-road motorcycles. Following are the
Top 11 Motorcycle Laws that Vary State-by-State
1. Motorcycle Licensing tiered by engine displacement: There are 14 states that have licensing that varies based on engine size. The variations may involve lower operator age levels for smaller displacement machines; operation limited to a motorcycle of the same displacement as that used for licensure testing; or operation of a larger displacement bike that is allowed if an approved rider education course is completed. Off-road riders may not be required to have a motorcycle license, but may be regulated by minimum age requirements or practical considerations such as being able to reach all the controls as is the case in California motorcycle law.
2. Rider education: There are 21 states that require rider education program completion for a motorcycle license; some base on age, three based on prior failure to pass the motorcycle road test twice and two based on motorcycle engine displacement.
3. Valid driver’s license required to hold a motorcycle license or endorsement: Twenty-three states require the rider to hold a valid driver’s license in order to get a motorcycle license or cycle validation.
4. Motorcycle Helmet Laws: States can vary on requiring riders of a certain age or license (temporary or learner’s permit) to wear a helmet where helmet use is not compulsory for all riders. Twenty-two states require helmet use by riders under age 18, those with instructional permits or passengers. Thirty-five states require DOT (FMVSS 218) compliant helmets to be used, which is odd law-making for those states that don’t require helmet use at all for most riders. It’s also redundant since helmets sold for use by road-going motorcycle riders is already covered by the federal standard.
In those states that don’t require helmet use but require a DOT-compliant helmet when the rider chooses to wear one, it would make sense that the rider be able to opt for any helmet that meets a recognized safety standard such as ECE 22.05, if they choose. Of course, under the current federal law, no manufacturer can market a helmet for use on public roads in the U.S. unless it meets DOT standards, which in some cases means that helmets that exceed the DOT standards cannot be sold in the U.S. unless the manufacturer opts to bear the added cost to test to DOT standards. Helmets certified under other internationally recognized safety standards should be deemed to have met the DOT standards when the other standard is at least as rigorous as the DOT standard. That would allow greater choice for riders and would cut costs for consumers by reducing redundancy in testing.
Four states include reference to long-obsolete ANSI (Z90.1) helmet standards as alternative requirements to the DOT standard and two states require compliance only to the obsolete ANSI standard. Time for an update there. One state requires all riders to “possess” a helmet (perhaps this means having one along—on your sissy bar), unless you are under 19 years of age or are a passenger, in which case, you must not only possess a helmet, you must wear it. Perhaps the logic in this “possession” requirement is “if you have to own a helmet, you may feel you might as well wear it.” Or something like that.
5. Eye protection: Thirty-six states require eye protection; 22 specify use by the operator; 23 exempt the operator from wearing eye protection if the bike has a windshield, though two states restrict the eye protection exemption to windshields at least 15” high. One state limits the eye protection requirement to those riders under age 18, one limits it to riders under age 21 and one requires it only for speeds over 35 mph. Apparently some enlightened legislators believe eyes over 18 or 21 or traveling occasionally under 35 mph are somehow immune to injury.
6. Rear-view mirrors: Only three states do not have a requirement for a rear view mirror. Seven states require a mirror only on the left side, five require dual mirrors, the rest don’t specify.
7. Fenders: Twenty states require fenders on both front and rear wheels, three states require fenders only on the rear wheel.
8. Handlebar height: Thirty states regulate how high your handlebars can be. The limits range from no higher than the operator’s eye level to a maximum of 30 inches above the seat.
9. Turn signals: Twenty states require turn signals on the bike, most affecting newer bikes manufactured after some specified year.
10. Odds and ends: Two states require footwear—I’d have thought common sense would require that. All but three states require passengers to have footrests available to them. Sixteen states restrict or prohibit the use of headphones. Sixteen states require the presence of a speedometer/odometer. Twenty-four states require use of the headlight during daylight hours most affecting newer bikes manufactured after some specified year. Three states prohibit passengers under 5 years of age. Six states allow flashing or modulating brake or tail light. Three states regulate auxiliary lighting. Lane-splitting and lane-sharing (riding two abreast) are also dealt with in some states.
11. Sound levels/muffler requirements: Laws vary on whether this is regulated at all and where it is regulated, the method and allowable sound levels can vary. Off-road bikes are regulated by set sound levels and/or the requirement to have a muffler or spark arrestor. Some states prohibit tampering with the original equipment exhaust system.
For example, in Wisconsin the law states: “No person shall modify the exhaust system of any such motor vehicle in a manner which will amplify or increase the noise emitted by the motor of such vehicle above that emitted by the muffler originally installed on the vehicle.” In addition, a muffler is required. In my experience, this requirement appears to be rather lightly enforced.
Texas, on the other hand says, “No acoustical criteria” on the subject of sound levels and muffler use.
How likely is it that you’ll get stopped and ticketed for violating the law in one state that doesn’t apply to you in your home state? That probably depends on how visible or egregious the violation is, the jurisdiction you happen to be operating in and other intangibles. For example, going without a helmet in mandatory-helmet-use-by-all-riders states may well result in a traffic stop; culminating in a warning, if you’re lucky, a fine if you’re not.
Similarly, some jurisdictions may be particularly touchy about loud pipes and modified exhaust systems. Other finer points like front fenders or dual mirrors may not attract much enforcement attention.
Motorcycle Laws: Concluding Thoughts
So remember, “Ignorantia juris non excusat” which is Latin for “Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” by some ancient Roman guy way back when. Practically applied it means, “you can’t beat the fine by claiming to be unaware that it is illegal to do 140 in a 55.”
The Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) has great resources available on motorcycle laws in the states as well as safety resources, and rider training programs. Check it all out at the MSF. The American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) has a great state-by-state resource about motorcycle laws. Visit AMA State Laws.
Oh, and remember, no part of this article shall be construed to be legal advice of any kind for any reason by any reasonable person.
(Legal disclaimer warning: the reader not to count on this information for anything other than some basic information and/or entertainment and probably precious little of that.)