Motorcycling is extremely popular across the country. Whether it's because of the high price of gas or the aura and mystique of riding free on the open road, there are millions (PDF) of them on our streets and highways. Unfortunately, there are thousands of motorcycle accidents each year, too.
Many accidents involve collisions between motorcycles and cars or other vehicles, but single-bike accidents happen, too. To avoid serious injury or even death, every motorcyclist should know the motorcycle safety and traffic laws before taking to the road.
Education and Training Programs
Knowing how to handle a motorcycle in any weather or traffic condition can save your life. In fact, whether you're given a license to operate a motorcycle may depend on getting trained. The laws on mandatory rider training vary from state to state (PDF):
- In a few states, such as Florida and Texas, all riders must take a training course in order to get a license
- Many states, like California and Ohio, require training for riders under a certain age (18 or 21, usually)
- Colorado, Indiana and others don't require any training
Most states use a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course, which works closely with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) to promote safety on the roads.
Even if a course isn't required by law in your state, think about taking one. Any rider can benefit from it, whether you're just beginning or have been riding for years.
License Requirements: Ride Legally
Motorcyclists in all 50 states and the District of Columbia must have a valid license. It may be an endorsement on your regular driver's license, or you may get a special "motorcycle only" license.
Licensing laws vary by state, but usually you have to pass a written test and driving skills test.
Check the laws in your state before riding your motorcycle. License testing is designed to make sure you have the skills needed to keep yourself and others safe while on the road. You also risk getting an expensive traffic ticket by riding without a valid license.
Have the Proper Equipment
The motorcycle itself can't protect you in a collision. It's up to you to take personal responsibility for safety. On top of training and licensing, you need the proper protective gear, as well as the proper equipment on your bike.
Use Your Head: Wear a Helmet
The most effective piece of safety equipment for a motorcyclist is the helmet. Again, helmet laws vary from state to state (PDF):
- All riders and passengers must wear a helmet in California, Nevada and several other states
- Ohio, Utah and other states require helmets for drivers who are under a certain age, usually 18 or 21
- A few states, such as Illinois, don't require helmets
- In the vast majority of states with helmet laws, helmets must certain safety standards, such as those set by the US Department of Transportation
It's a good idea to wear a helmet while riding your motorcycle even if you're not legally required to do so. It can save you from serious, even fatal, head injuries.
You Can't Drive If You Can't See
Riding a motorcycle means your head is exposed to wind, rain, bugs and debris kicked up by traffic around you. It's easy to get into or cause an accident if you can't see where you're going.
Wearing a helmet with a visor is your best bet. A helmet without a visor and no separate eye protection can spell disaster. That's why eye protection is mandatory in the vast majority of states (PDF). Many states make exceptions, however, for motorcycles equipped with windscreens.
Equipment on Your Bike
Practically all states (PDF) require motorcycles to have equipment meant to keep riders safe. For example:
- The vast majority of states require rear view mirrors
- Except for Missouri and Mississippi, all states and the District of Columbia require passenger seats
- Less than half the states require turn signals and daylight headlights, including California and Georgia
- Safety inspections are required in about half the states, including Massachusetts and Texas
New motorcycle dealerships should sell you a bike with all state-required equipment. When buying a used bike, check the safety equipment requirements in your state before hitting the streets.
Rules of the Road
As a general rule, you have to follow the same traffic laws as any other vehicle on the road. Avoid causing or getting into an accident by following the rules.
Special Lane Rules for Motorcycles
Because motorcycles are much smaller and not as wide as other vehicles on the road, there are special rules when it comes to driving lanes.
Lane sharing or lane splitting is where you drive your motorcycle between the two lanes of stopped or slow-moving traffic. Only California has a law making lane sharing legal, but it may permitted in other states.
It's argued lane sharing reduces traffic congestion and reduces motorcycle accidents by giving motorcyclists an escape route when there are threats of being trapped in traffic or struck from behind.
Riding two-by-two, here you and another motorcyclist share the same lane, is permitted in most states. In some states two motorcycles may ride next to each other. In other states, the bikes must be staggered, with one bike behind and to the right or left of the other motorcycle. Check the laws in your state for any restrictions.
A motorcycle is entitled to the same rights to parking as any other vehicle. You can use all or part of parking space.
Motorcycling is a fun, efficient way to get around. Follow the rules of the road and protect yourself to make sure you get to your destination safely.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Is a moped covered by the same laws as a motorcycle?
- Will I get points against my driver's license if I ride without a motorcycle license?
- I'm not required to wear a helmet in my state. Do I have to wear one while riding in a state with a helmet law?