Michael Bilokonsky Looks at 5 Types of Motorcycle Safety Laws in the U.S.
In 1970, legendary adventure motorcyclist, engineer, mechanic, and author Theresa Wallach shared in her seminal book Easy Motorcycle Riding: “You are on your own. You are not protected by two tons of steel, rubber, foam padding, and safety glass… If you are prepared to accept the responsibility of your own actions, then motorcycling can be both safe and thrilling. Riding is an art as well as a craft and no amount of explanation can take the place of experience.”
Today, half a century later, Ms. Wallach’s precise and profound words still apply. In fact, given how much more complex the world has become since 1970, we might say that the excitement and freedom of motorcycling is even more thrilling today, and indeed, therapeutic.
However, feeling and hearing the signature rev of a machine like a 77 horsepower 1,250cc V-Twin Harley-Davidson is only part of the story. The other part — admittedly not as exciting, but even more important — is safety.
“According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2018, 4,095 motorcyclists died, and overall motorcyclists are far overrepresented in traffic fatalities,” commented Michael Bilokonsky, the CEO and President of Whitehorse Freight, as well as an avid motorcycling enthusiast. “In many cases these preventable collisions and fatalities are not due to any material fault of motorcyclists, but to other drivers who do not know how to properly share the road.”
Unfortunately, there is no way for motorcyclists to 100 percent avoid collisions caused by other drivers (as well as bicyclists, pedestrians, animals, falling rocks — and so on). However, they can — and according to the law, they must — mitigate the risk by complying with all motorcycle safety laws in their respective state, which means they are one they are driving in and not necessarily the one where they live.
Understanding Motorcycle Laws By State
“Across the country, there are basically five types or categories of motorcycle safety laws,” commented Michael Bilokonsky, who has been riding motorcycles for over a decade, and is the proud owner of two motorcycles — including an 830-pound 1746cc single cam pushrod V-twin Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special 2017. “These include helmet use laws, eye protection laws, passenger laws, daytime headlight laws, and lane splitting laws.”
As for which laws apply to what state, this is something that each motorcyclist needs to research and understand before they head out on the open road for a gloriously long trek.
“Currently, the only states that don’t have helmet laws are Illinois and Iowa,” commented Michael Bilokonsky. “Every other state, including Kentucky where my logistics company Whitehorse Freight is located, has have helmet laws of some kind on the books, and failing to heed them can at best result in a stuff fine and an insurance premium hike, and at worst contribute to a serious accident — or in extreme cases, a fatality.”
As for the eye protection laws, a surprising number of states — 14 to be exact — do not require mandatory eye protection. However, most safety experts and many motorcycling enthusiasts strongly urge all drivers to don proper eye protection, regardless of whether it’s the law or not.
Passenger laws are a bit more straightforward: in four states — Washington, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana — it’s against the law to have passengers in the 5–8 age range. In the other 46 states, it’s not a violation (but again, motorcyclists are urged to use their discretion and judgement).
With respect to daytime headlight laws, things get a bit confusing again depending on the state. Currently, 18 states require headlights to be operational all the time, regardless of the model year. Seven states mandate that headlights are required on motorcycles after a certain model year. Two states — Delaware and Rhode Island — have no daytime headlight laws on the books. And the rest of the states allow for modulating headlight use.
“Modulating headlight use means that the headline continuously fluctuates between full power and dimming, which is more eye-catching for other drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians, and animals,” commented Michael Bilokonsky.
And finally, when it comes to lane splitting laws, contrary to what some people believe based on what they see on the roads each day, there is only one state in the country — California — where lane splitting (i.e. when a motorcycle rides between two vehicles) is legal. In the majority of states, lane splitting is illegal, while in a dozen states there is no clear-cut law regarding lane splitting (i.e. it is not mentioned or specifically prohibited).
“Motorcyclists are recommended to consult Motorcycle Legal Foundation’s website, which has excellent and updated information on motorcycle laws in effect, including a state-by-state breakdown of the different types of laws,” commented Michael Bilokonsky. “The best motorcyclists aren’t just the ones with the best driving skills, but also the ones who are the safest. After all, the goal is to experience the unique thrill of riding under the open sky.”