Motorcycle Riding Laws & Rules: Helmets, Equipment & Lane SplittingUpdated Nov. 20, 2020
Motorcyclists must practice defensive driving, ensure their motorcycle meets safety standards, and wear appropriate riding clothes to minimize their risk of injury on the roads. Data collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that motorcyclist deaths occurred 28 times more frequently than fatalities in other vehicles, in 2016.
As a motorcyclist, you have the same rights and responsibilities as a motorist, though your risk of injury is far greater. Unlike car drivers, you are not enclosed when riding your motorcycle. Plus, your vehicle is smaller, lighter and less powerful than most other vehicles on the road.
Riding a motorcycle safely takes balance, coordination and care, but it begins with making sure you are using the correct equipment. Official rules for motorcyclists may vary a little around the United States. Check your local driver’s handbook to make sure your motorcycle meets the legal requirements of your state, before taking it out on the road. It is recommended that you take all safety precautions possible, even if a certain measure is not legally required in your state.
Always conduct a thorough vehicle inspection before riding your motorcycle, to ensure it is fit for the journey ahead. Keep in mind that most motorcycle accidents occur on short journeys of five miles or less, within just a few minutes of the rider setting off.
Motorcycle tires must have good tread and not be dried out or cracked.
You should make sure that your tires are properly inflated prior to each journey on your motorcycle. Check your rims and spokes at the same time; these should be tightly fastened, in good condition and free from cracks.
Brakes must completely stop the wheel from turning when fully applied.
Always check the brakes, clutch and associated cables before riding your motorcycle.
Your motorcycle must have enough gas and oil for your journey, as running out of gas at the wrong time could be very dangerous.
Always check for leaks, as leaking oil can blow onto your back wheel and cause your motorcycle to skid.
The motorcycle chain should have about one inch of play and be properly lubricated in accordance with the manufacturer’s guidelines.
Turn on the headlight
Every motorcycle must be equipped with a headlamp, which must be turned on when riding in the dark. Some state handbooks stipulate to what distance the light from your headlamp must be visible. In California, the minimum visible distance is 115ft.
In most states, motorcyclists are legally required to switch their headlamps on when driving at any time – including during the day – to maximize visibility. Daytime headlight use is recommended, even for riders who live in one of the handful of states where it is not required.
New York, Georgia, Illinois, Oregon, Minnesota and Florida are among the 18 states where constant headlamp use is a legal requirement. Check your state’s motorcycle handbook if you are unsure about the rules.
Motorcycle helmet law
Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia have a helmet law stating that all motorcyclists and passengers must wear a helmet. A further 28 states have helmet laws pertaining to certain riders and situations – usually those under the age of 18. Riders in Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire are not legally required to where a helmet at any time.
You can check your state’s own driving handbook or motorcycle manual for up-to-date rules regarding motorcycle helmets. Irrespective of the law, all riders should wear a helmet that meets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety standards while operating a motorcycle or traveling as a passenger via motorcycle. Motorcycle accidents and collisions are common. If the worst should happen, wearing a helmet could save your life.
Choosing your motorcycle helmet
There are two main types of motorcycle helmets: three-quarter and full face. Which you choose is a matter of personal choice; neither will obscure your view of the road.
Choose a motorcycle helmet that:
- Meets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety standards
- Fits snugly, all the way around
- Has no defects (such as frayed straps, loose padding or cracks)
Also known as “lane sharing” and “white-lining”, lane splitting refers to the practice of riding a motorcycle, moped or bicycle between lanes or rows of slow-moving traffic. In most states, lane splitting is either illegal or permitted in so much as it is not written into state law. Only in California has lane-splitting been legalized. Refer to the motorcycle laws in your state driver’s handbook to find out if splitting lanes is prohibited in your area.
Whether permitted or not, lane splitting can be dangerous for motorcyclists and car drivers alike. Careless lane splitting can result in a fine, even in California where the practice is allowed.
Here are some lane-splitting safety tips:
Never travel at a speed more than 10mph faster than other traffic.
Do not lane split when traffic is traveling faster than 30mph.
Split between the two farthest left lanes whenever possible.
Always be alert and aware of your surroundings.
Only experienced and confident motorcyclists should carry passengers. Understand that the handling of the motorcycle will change when you carry a passenger. The increased load means that the motorcycle will require more time to accelerate, slow down and make other maneuvers. You will need to adjust your usual way of riding to accommodate these new challenges. Always practice on a quiet or private road, before taking a passenger out onto busy public roadways. Any passenger you carry must be prepared to follow safety rules and wear a helmet.
All motorcycle passengers must insist on a properly fitting helmet before going anywhere near a motorcycle. Remember that in most states it is a legal requirement for motorcycle passengers to wear helmets. The motorcycle operator should not start the engine until both riders are safely positioned and are wearing correctly adjusted helmets. Before you go for your first ride, check out the following rules and guidelines for motorcycle passengers:
No helmet, no motorcycle ride.
Wear appropriate clothes.
Ideally this should include a heavy leather jacket, gloves and leather boots.
During turns, lean with the driver.
Passengers must know how to lean when the motorcycle turns. You must remain behind the driver and lean as they lean.
Always keep your feet on the passenger pegs, even when the motorcycle has stopped.
Keep your legs away from mufflers, chains and moving parts. This is essential for your safety.
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