When operating a motorcycle, safety is paramount. Motorcycles can be risky for riders and result in severe injury or death even when taking all the appropriate precautions, so staying safe means you need to know the California laws that apply to motorcyclists. In addition to abiding by the same laws governing motorists in regular vehicles on the road, California has some laws that apply only to motorcyclists. We are going to explore these laws in detail, so you know how to keep yourself and others safe on California’s roads and not run afoul of the law.
Becoming Licensed to Operate a Motorcycle in California
Before taking a motorcycle out on California roads, you are required to obtain a license. The specific requirements differ depending on your age, but the first step usually is to get a learner’s permit from the California DMV. For permits, you must pass a vision test, a knowledge test, and a test on skills. A motorcycle handbook produced by the state contains information you must know for the knowledge and the skills test. Learner’s permits expire one year after they are issued, and do not allow a motorcyclist to carry passengers, drive at night, or drive on any highways. Once you have this permit, the further requirements vary by age.
- No one under 16 may apply for or hold a learner’s permit. If you are under 18 but over 16, you must have a valid learner’s permit for no less than six months before applying for a license. You must also complete a driver’s education and training course to help you learn the basics of motorcycle safety. The California Motorcyclist Safety Program is regularly offered by the highway patrol.
- If you are at least 18, you must pass the three tests required to obtain a learner’s permit, complete the Application for a Driver’s License/Identification Card, pay the applicable fee, and have your photo and fingerprints taken. You must also complete the California Motorcyclist Safety Program.
- Applicants 21 years of age or older may opt out of completing the California Motorcyclist Safety Program and instead take their driving test at any California DMV.
Additionally, an applicant who does not possess a California driver’s license must give the following information: full legal name, birth date or legal presence document and social security number.
Carrying Passengers on a Motorcycle
Except when holding a learner’s permit, California does not place restrictions on the passengers a licensed motorcyclist may carry. Persons of any age may ride behind a licensed motorcycle operator. However, the passenger must be provided with footrests, which must be used when the motorcycle is being operated. Passenger seats must also be fastened securely behind the driver’s seat.
Required and Prohibited Motorcycle Features in California
Helmets must be worn at all times in California. California Vehicle Code 27803 stipulated that helmets must be in compliance with requirements issued by the Department of Transportation.
Safety Equipment Requirements
Unless the motorcycle was manufactured before 1973, all motorcycles must be equipped with front and rear functioning turn signals. California Vehicle Code 27801 also requires motorcycles have mirrors on both the left and right sides.
For all exhaust systems and motorcycles made in 2013 or later, the exhaust system must comply with state codes. It is illegal to alter an emission-related part of the vehicle.
Motorcycles in California are required to have handlebars with grips that are no taller than 6 inches above the motorcyclist’s shoulders when seated on their bike. This means handlebars known as “ape hangers” are prohibited in California.
Mandatory Minimum Insurance Coverage Requirements
In California, anyone operating a motor vehicle or motorcycle must always carry liability insurance coverage. The minimum amount of coverage a motorcyclist must have is:
- $30,000 in bodily injury coverage for multiple victims
- $15,000 of individual bodily injury coverage
- $5,000 in property damage coverage
Failure to comply with these requirements can subject you to a ticket and fine, and if you do not have at least the minimum insurance coverage requirements and are involved in any accident, your motorcycle license may be suspended for up to a year.
Motorcycle Lane Sharing in California
Lane sharing occurs when two motorcyclists are in a single lane of traffic riding side by side or a motorcycle is next to a passenger vehicle in the same traffic lane. Though there is no specific restriction on this practice in California, it is believed unsafe by driving experts, as well as the California DMV.
Motorcyclists who engage in the practice of sharing lanes have a greater chance of rear-ending a motor vehicle than those who ride inside a lane of traffic. Lane splitting motorcyclists are also more vulnerable to being involved in a traffic accident during weekdays because of the high traffic volume around peak rush hour times. Finally, motorcyclists run the risk of being in broadside accidents because motor vehicle operators often try to switch lanes without checking their mirrors and blind spots, illegally try to enter or exit a carpool lane from standstill traffic or fail to notice an approaching motorcycle. In fact, these dangers are real — many experts blame the rising number of motorcycle accident fatalities on lane spitting, and in early 2016, California’s Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System produced a report showing a 23 percent increase of fatal motorcycle accidents since 2010.
Despite the risks, lane sharing does have benefits for riders. The U.S. Department of Transportation views lane splitting as a technique that provides motorcyclists an escape route and a way not to be stuck between motor vehicles when in traffic. Lane splitting can also prevent unnecessary inhalation of exhaust by motorcyclists and may allow emergency response vehicles and law enforcement easier maneuvering on California’s roadways. When sharing a lane, motorcyclists must always remember to maintain proper distance from other motor vehicles and be alert to their surroundings.
Lane Splitting Laws and Guidelines for Motorcyclists in California
Unlike lane sharing, lane splitting is specifically permitted in California as of January 1, 2017. Lane splitting is a motorcycling maneuver described in California Vehicle Code 21658 as:
Driving a motorcycle between rows of stopped or moving vehicles in the same lane including on both divided and undivided streets, roads, and highways.
No other state allows this, but it is often a way for motorcyclists to avoid becoming trapped by other motor vehicles or being rear-ended by providing them an escape route. It can also be practiced in order to avoid exhaust inhalation.
Lane Splitting Guidelines
Because lane splitting carries with it many inherent dangers, the California Highway Patrol has created a pamphlet giving guidelines and safety precaution suggestions to motorcyclists as to when lane splitting should be practiced based on surrounding traffic conditions. Some of the suggestions for safe lane splitting include:
- A motorcyclist should not drive in excess of 10 miles an hour faster than the speed of surrounding traffic. High speed differentials increase danger to a rider, so operating a motorcycle at slower speeds gives margin for better reaction time to hazards and lane changing motor vehicles.
- Motorcyclists should avoid lane splitting at recognizable merge points or near any freeway entrance or exit ramps. Sudden lane changes more commonly occur at or near these points, so the danger of lane splitting increases.
- Lane splitting is performed most safely between lanes 1 and 2 of traffic—the furthest left on the road. Motor vehicle operators are more used to motorcyclists splitting between these outside lanes (the “fast lanes”), so they expect to see motorcyclists practicing this technique in faster traffic lanes.
- Motorcyclists should avoid splitting lanes when travelling in excess of 30 miles per hour. Even at peak alertness and in ideal conditions, a motorcyclist should not engage in the practice of lane splitting when driving faster than 30 miles per hour, so they are able to react to a hazard or another vehicle switching lanes.
- Lane splitting should only be practiced on familiar roads. If you do not know the road, you will be unfamiliar with existing hazards such as pavement seams, standing water, poor road conditions, and loose gravel, you should avoid lane splitting.
- Motorcyclists should be fully aware of the distances between vehicles before lane splitting.
- Be visible for drivers. Use daylights and wear bright colors if possible. Avoid lane splitting during or right after a rain, at night, or near sunrise or sunset.
- Be aware of your environment. Motorcyclists should be aware and watch out for approaching vehicles in the distance. They should also have an awareness of lane width, size of motor vehicles around them, road conditions, weather conditions, time of day and lighting. If you have a doubt about whether you can safely split lanes, don’t do it.
The Four R’s of Lane Splitting
The California Motorcyclist Safety Program has created the Four R’s of Lane Splitting as a guideline, reminding every rider that they are responsible for their own decision making and safety, so they must be constantly conscious of reducing the risk of accidents:
- Be Reasonable
- Be Responsible
- Be Respectful
- Be Aware of Roadway and Traffic Conditions.
When You Should Avoid Lane Splitting
The California Motorcyclist Safety Program has also recommended certain times and situations when a motorcyclist should err on the side of caution and not practice lane splitting:
- If your motorcycle cannot comfortably fit between vehicles
- When at or approaching a toll booth
- In unpredictable or rapidly moving traffic
- When road conditions exist that present dangers such as construction, metal grates, uneven pavement, or in construction zones
- In or around curves
- If you are not fully alert and aware of your surroundings
- If you are unable to clearly see an exit from a space you are going to enter
- In between trucks, RVs, buses, and other large vehicles
- In any situation where you do not feel comfortable splitting the lanes
Even though the California Highway Patrol has produced these suggestions, a motorcyclist will not be given a ticket for failing to abide by them. Motor vehicle operators, however, may be stopped and ticketed if they are traveling beside a motorcycle and move into the motorcycle’s path in an effort to impede them from sharing their lane of traffic. This is considered a lane change violation by the California Highway Patrol.
California Motorcycle Accident Attorneys
Even when using proper care, riding alertly, and obeying all safety rules and traffic laws in California, motorcyclists may still be involved in accidents and suffer severe injuries. The guidelines and laws are meant to keep you safe, but they are not a guarantee of incident- and injury-free riding. If you are injured or have lost a loved one in a California motorcycle accident, you should consult an experienced motorcycle accident attorney to learn whether you may be entitled to financial compensation for harms you have suffered as a result of your accident.
A skilled attorney will investigate your situation thoroughly to determine who is at fault for the accident, who is legally responsible for the harms you and your motorcycle suffered, and your best options going forward to recover damages for your injuries.
At the Law Office of Daniel H. Rose, we offer complimentary consultations to help you determine the strength of your claim and best steps moving forward. We will devote our knowledge and years of experience to fighting for justice in your case and helping you recover the compensation you are entitled to. To schedule a consultation, contact us today at (415) 946-8900.