How to Stay Safe and Follow the Law on the Road
Operating a motorcycle safely means following unique laws that the drivers of passenger vehicles may not have to consider. As the driver of a motorcycle, you must know those laws, including how they vary from state to state.
1. Helmet Laws
Helmet laws vary by state. If you head out on a trip on your bike, you should always research helmet requirements in the states you plan to visit or drive through, especially if you live in a state where you do not legally have to wear a helmet to operate your motorcycle. Whether or not it’s required, helmet use substantially reduces the risk of traumatic brain injury in a motorcycle accident.
States That Require Motorcycle Helmet Use
In many states, the law specifically requires riders to wear a helmet at all times.
These states include:
- North Carolina
- Washington, DC
- New York
States That Require Helmet Use for Certain Ages
Other states set helmet use requirements based on a rider’s age. Riders in these states must wear their helmets until they reach 18 or 21, and may have to have specific insurance coverage, including health insurance coverage, to ride without a helmet.
These states include:
- New Mexico
- North Dakota
- South Dakota
- South Carolina
- Rhode Island
- New Hampshire
States that Require Helmet Use Under Specific Conditions
In three states—West Virginia, New Jersey, and Vermont—users must wear helmets under specific circumstances. The helmets must have reflectors that help draw additional attention to a rider and make it easier for other drivers to see them on the road.
States with No Helmet Requirements
Maryland, Rhode Island, and Hawaii do not require motorcycle riders to wear a helmet while on the road.
2. Headlight Use
When riding a motorcycle, some states require motorcyclists to keep their headlights on at all times to help draw attention to their motorcycle and make them more visible to the people around them, even during the day. In eighteen states, the age of the motorcycle does not matter. Other states allow older motorcycles to get by without having a headlight on all the time. However, they usually set specific limitations on the age of the motorcycle, and almost all motorcycles created after 1956 must have their headlights on at all times, in every state.
3. Lane Splitting
Lane splitting is when a motorcycle drives between two lanes of traffic. The practice of lane splitting can make it easier for motorcycles to get through heavy traffic faster. However, in most states, lane splitting is illegal. Only California has fully legalized lane splitting. Some states, including Texas, New Mexico, Montana, Missouri, and Arkansas, do not specifically prohibit lane splitting.
Usually, motorcyclists engage in lane splitting when traffic comes to a dead stop in a traffic jam, or when traffic flows extremely slowly. Motorcycle riders in states that do not prohibit lane splitting may choose to use the technique to escape traffic jams more easily. Even in states where lane splitting does not offer a legal way to save some time in tight traffic conditions, it is no excuse for another motorist to injure a motorcyclist.
4. Eye Protection
Sometimes helmets come with built-in eye protection: a screen over the eyes that helps prevent debris, bugs, and pollen from getting into a rider’s eyes. When riding a motorcycle, you need your vision to be uncompromised. If something flies into your face and hits your eyes, you may inadvertently swerve, which could cause you to suffer a single-vehicle accident or lead to you hitting another vehicle.
In some states, including Alaska, Arizona, and Arkansas, riders must have eye protection to legally operate their motorcycles unless they have a windscreen in place that will help provide the same protection to the face and eliminate that hazard. In California, Alabama, and Idaho, on the other hand, motorcycle riders can ride without having to wear eye protection.
5. Age Restrictions
Riding a motorcycle can offer a fun mode of transportation for people of all ages. Children can often ride safely with their parents, especially over short distances while wearing a helmet. While California does not have specific laws prohibiting children under a certain age from riding on a motorcycle, other states do impose those laws.
In Arkansas, the law prohibits motorcycle passengers under eight. In Hawaii, passengers younger than seven cannot legally ride on a motorcycle. Louisiana law specifically states not only that children under five years of age cannot legally ride on a motorcycle, but that children must wear a helmet and that they must sit properly on the motorcycle. Texas law also prohibits children under age five from riding on a motorcycle, but allows children to ride in an attached sidecar at any age. Washington prohibits riders under the age of five in any circumstances.
Age restrictions for motorcycle use aim to keep younger riders safe. Many younger riders may have a harder time staying safely on the back of a motorcycle. They might drift off to sleep or struggle not to squirm, which can increase the danger. Even in states where parents can determine when their children can ride safely on a motorcycle, you should carefully evaluate your child to determine whether that child can safely join you on a ride. Young children may have a hard time staying safe on the back of a motorcycle. They may need to wait until they get a little older before riding with their parents.
6. Noise Laws
In some states, lawmakers have imposed noise restrictions that apply to motorcycles. While not every state has noise control laws, some states, including Connecticut, Arizona, Florida, and Hawaii, require mufflers on their motorcycles. State laws may also prohibit the use of modifications that increase the sound level of the motorcycle. California law states that motorcycles must have a muffler and that they cannot use cutouts, bypasses, or similar devices.
7. Headphone Use
Unlike most vehicles, your motorcycle may not come with a built-in stereo that allows you to listen to music while you’re on the road. Motorcycle riders, however, may enjoy music as part of the overall riding experience. Headphones seem like the logical solution.
Wearing headphones, however, can interfere with your ability to hear what’s happening on the road around you. Many of today’s headphones offer noise cancelation, which makes it hard for you to hear important signals like honking horns and sirens. With your attention locked in front of you and music distracting you, you might not notice an ambulance coming up behind you or a large vehicle honking to signal that a collision may be imminent.
Some states, like Alabama, completely prohibit headphone use. In other states, including California, Colorado, and Connecticut, you can wear headphones legally only if they just cover one ear. By leaving one ear free, you ensure that you can still hear those important traffic signals as you move through the streets.
Note that listening to upbeat music with a tempo of more than 120 beats per minute can increase the risk of an accident. Listening to high-tempo music increases overall stimulation and can lead to higher levels of distraction. Drivers listening to high-tempo music generally arrive at their destinations faster, indicating that they are more likely to speed. They may also change lanes much more often, which means more opportunities for accidents to take place. Lower-tempo music, on the other hand, may encourage drivers to navigate more safely, which can decrease accident risk.
Watch for Changing State Laws
As you travel from state to state on your motorcycle, applicable laws may change dramatically. In many cases, meeting the maximum standards with regards to the laws in every state can help keep you safe and prevent you from getting a ticket no matter where you are. As you head out on a multi-state motorcycle trip, for example, you may want to forego listening to music through headphones, wear your helmet no matter what state you’re in, and make sure that you have adequate eye protection. All these strategies can raise your overall safety and help decrease your chance of getting into an accident on the road.
You may also want to do your research before heading out on a trip with a child, since different states may have different age requirements for a child motorcycle passenger. If you need to drive through a state that has age restrictions that may impact your child, you may need to take a different vehicle or make arrangements to bypass that state.
Without being aware of changing state laws, you may end up being caught off-guard in a state with very different restrictions from your own. Some police officers may be more likely to issue a citation to a driver from another state. In other cases, blatant disregard for local state laws may attract the attention of officers.
Finally, keep in mind that knowing local laws can help you decrease your accident risk. For example, in states where the law specifically prohibits lane splitting, you may find that the practice poses a much more serious risk, since drivers may not consider the possibility of a motorcycle coming up behind them between lanes of traffic. By getting to know local laws, you can keep yourself, your passengers, and others on the road with you much safer.
Unfortunately, even following all motorcycle laws to the letter does not eliminate the risk of suffering an accident. If you suffered injuries in a motorcycle accident, especially if the other driver caused the accident, contact a motorcycle accident attorney to learn more about the compensation you may deserve for your injuries.