Motorcycles in the US

Regulations, permits and insurances

Motorcycles in the US

Motorists with a full car driving licence may ride a motorcycle (up to 125cc) without passing a test or obtaining a special licence. US motorcycle tests are mostly superficial and in most states there’s no restriction on the size of bike a rider can ride after passing his test. No test is necessary for moped riders.

In general, motoring laws applying to cars also apply to motorcycles; however, there are a few points which apply to motorcyclists only. Proof of ownership (title) and registration of motorcycles is required in all states. No title is required for mopeds, which must be registered in most (around 35) states plus the District of Columbia. A motorcycle licence is required in all states, although this may be an authorisation on a car licence; a moped licence is required in most states.

The minimum age for riding a moped (up to 50cc) is 10 in Arkansas, 13 in New Mexico, and between 14 and 16 in all other states. For motorcycles over 50cc, the minimum age is 14 in Alabama, Alaska and Kansas, 15 in Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana and Mississippi, and between 16 and 18 in all other states. In some states riders under a certain age, e.g. 18, must complete an approved motorcycle rider education programme.

A crash helmet of an approved design is obligatory for all motorcycle riders and passengers in some 20 states. In most other states, helmets must be worn by riders under 18 or 19. Three states currently have no helmet laws in place (Colorado, Illinois and Iowa), although this is subject to change. In Delaware, all riders must carry helmets, but only those under 19 are required to wear them (Americans’ heads get harder as they age!).

Rhode Island requires only passengers to wear a helmet. Moped riders must wear helmets in around 20 states, half of which require only those of a certain age to wear them, e.g. 16 to 19 (even though more middle-aged riders are involved in accidents than teenagers). Many bikers are vehemently opposed to wearing helmets and argue that they have a right to kill themselves, although when they’re injured it’s often the state that has to pick up the bill. In many states, you’re also required to wear goggles if a windscreen (windshield) isn’t fitted to your bike.

Note also the following:

  • In general, motorcycles registered for use on public highways must meet the equipment requirements in the state in which they’re registered, in addition to federal safety standards.
  • Only bikes over 50cc are permitted to use interstate or limited access highways.
  • In many states, motorcyclists are required to use headlights at all times.
  • Riding between lanes of traffic is prohibited in all states and riding two (or more) abreast is also prohibited in some states.
  • A strong lock is recommended for all bikes.

Insurance for motorcycles is high and similar to that for cars. The cost of insurance depends on your age (riders under 25 pay much more), type and cubic capacity of your motorcycle, and the length of time you’ve held a licence. You should have liability insurance well above the legal minimum. In most states, you can be eligible for significant discounts on motorcycle insurance if you’ve completed the state motorcycle training classes.

Like cars, motorcycles are inexpensive. If you want a bike for a short period only, it’s probably best to buy a used model, as you won’t have to bear the initial depreciation. Most dealers sell new and used bikes (on which sales tax must be paid). The procedure and legal requirements when buying a bike are much the same as for buying a car. It’s also possible to rent a motorcycle or moped in most areas.

Some American motorists think all bikers are Hell’s Angels and are often hostile towards them. They won’t usually run you off the road, but you may need to put up with a certain amount of abuse.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

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