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Understanding California’s Motorcycle Laws

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California is known for its robust motorcycle culture, and from dusty country roads to vast highways, there’s no shortage of beautiful places to enjoy the open road. It’s no wonder that California has laws and regulations intended to protect bikers and facilitate safely sharing the road.

A motorcycle is a vehicle, and broadly speaking, motorcycle riders are required to follow the same rules of the road as drivers of other vehicles. For instance, bikers need to stay at or under the speed limit, stop at stop signs, obey traffic signals, and refrain from operating under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In addition, there are several laws that pertain specifically to motorcycle riders (and, when applicable, passengers). Understanding the law will help you stay safe and avoid a motorcycle accident.

Requirements to obtain a California motorcycle license

In California, a motorcycle permit or endorsement is called a Class M1 license. To get a Class M1 license, you must be at least 16 years old, pass a motorcycle knowledge test, complete an application and pay a fee. In addition, you must either complete a state-approved motorcycle safety training course or (if over 21) skip the training course by passing a skills test at the DMV. The skills test includes:

  • Pre-trip inspection
  • Riding in different track paths
  • Slow riding
  • Gear shifting

Riders under the age of 21, in addition to being required to take the training course, must have a learner’s permit for at least six months before they can get a full license. Riders under 18 additionally must either already hold a California Class C driver’s license or show proof that they have completed a state-approved driver education course.

California motorcycle registration, insurance, and equipment laws

Every motorcycle garaged in California must be registered with the California DMV, and to be registered, it must be insured. The liability insurance requirements for motorcycles are the same as for any other vehicle: $15,000 in bodily injury liability coverage to a single person, $30,000 total bodily injury liability for all injuries caused in one accident, and $5,000 in property damage liability. Remember, you must get an insurance policy that specifically covers your motorcycle – having insurance on another vehicle doesn’t automatically cover your motorcycle.

To be street-legal in California, a motorcycle must meet the following safety requirements:

  • At least one mirror that provides view at least 200 feet to the rear of the vehicle
  • Front and rear turn signals (motorcycles built in 1973 and newer)
  • Headlights that turn on automatically and remain on whenever the engine is running (motorcycles built in 1978 and newer)
  • Tamper-resistant exhaust system (motorcycles built in 2013 and newer)

In order to legally ride a motorcycle in California, your feet must reach the ground when you are sitting astride the seat, and your hands may be elevated no more than six inches above shoulder height when you are sitting astride the seat. (California Vehicle Code §27801)

Motorcycle helmets are mandatory in California

Safety helmets are mandatory for motorcycle riders and passengers on California roads. To meet this legal requirement, the safety helmet must be certified by its manufacturer to comply with U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations and must have a visible DOT sticker. California law also specifies that the helmet must be fastened with straps and fit the rider’s head securely when so fastened, without “excessive lateral or vertical movement.” (California Vehicle Code §27803)

Failure to wear a helmet can affect liability for an accident when a motorcycle rider or passenger sustains a head injury that a helmet could have prevented. However, the rider’s failure to wear a helmet doesn’t necessarily clear another motorist of responsibility for causing a crash. California is a “pure” comparative negligence state, so if the driver who caused your crash is even partially responsible for your injury, you can still recover compensation from them in proportion to their share of fault.

California laws for motorcycle passengers

Any fully licensed California motorcycle operator (that is, anyone who has a Class M1 license, not a learner’s permit) can transport passengers on their motorcycle. There is no legal minimum age to ride on a motorcycle as a passenger. However, California law requires that motorcycle passengers sit on a seat securely fastened behind the driver and be provided with footrests, or sit in a sidecar designed for the purpose of carrying a passenger (California Vehicle Code §27800). Passengers are required to wear DOT-compliant safety helmets and keep their feet on footrests while the motorcycle is in motion.

“Lane splitting” is legal in California

In 2016, California passed Assembly Bill 51, making it the first U.S. state to explicitly legalize “lane splitting,” the practice of riding a motorcycle between lanes of traffic. Prior to Assembly Bill 51, lane splitting was in a legal gray area – the law didn’t address it one way or another. Now, lane splitting is legal in California, so long as it is done in a safe and prudent manner.

After AB 51 passed, the California Highway Patrol published guidelines for lane splitting, both for motorcyclists and motorists. The CHP guidelines recommend considering the total roadway environment, including the physical width of the lanes, the size of the vehicles sharing the road (lane splitting next to big rig trucks, buses, and RVs is very dangerous), and the weather and lighting conditions.

The CHP also recommends being conscious of speed: it’s best to go no more than 10 mph faster than the speed of the traffic, and no faster than 50 mph overall. In other words, the idea is for motorcycles to be able to reduce congestion and avoid collisions in heavy, slow traffic, not to weave between cars traveling at full highway speeds. The risk of an accident increases significantly with both greater speed differential and greater overall speed.

Remember that lane splitting as defined by California law is riding between lanes of traffic; riding on the shoulder remains illegal. Specifically, the CHP guidelines recommend lane splitting between the two leftmost lanes of traffic if possible but splitting between any two adjacent travel lanes is legal, as well.

The CHP guidelines also include motorcycle safety recommendations for other drivers on California roads. It’s illegal to intentionally block a motorcycle using a vehicle or vehicle door. Motorists using the far-left lane are expected to move to the left within the lane in order to give motorcycles room to pass on the right.

If you’ve been in a motorcycle crash, get an attorney who knows the law

California’s laws are intended to protect motorcyclists, but too many motorists don’t follow the law. When that happens, bikers can be badly hurt, and lives can be changed forever. You have legal recourse, and an experienced California motorcycle accident lawyer can help you fight back against the insurance company. Schedule your free consultation with the Swanson Law Group today.

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