Motorcycle riding is more popular than ever, and each year when warmer weather comes around millions of bikers take to America's highways. With so many motorcycles on the road, the need to follow basic safety practices is vitally important to reducing the number of accidents, injuries, and fatalities.
One of the most effective ways of enhancing rider safety is simply obeying traffic laws. Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) plays a major role in conducting research, advising on best practices, and creating standards to regulate motor vehicle safety, including motorcycles, the individual states write the laws that govern everyday driving and the rules of the road. Laws can vary widely from state to state, and it's essential that riders are familiar with the laws in the states that they ride in, primarily for safety's sake, but also to avoid costly fines and possible loss of license for riding violations.
Here are some of the most important laws for riders to stay abreast of, as they can and do change from year to year.
Helmet and Eye Protection Laws – Wearing a proper helmet has been proven to greatly reduce deaths and catastrophic brain injuries among riders involved in crashes, yet only 19 states, plus the District of Columbia, have universal laws requiring that riders wear them. Bikers have historically been resistant to such laws, seeing it as an issue of personal freedom of choice.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and the NHTSA, in 2010 12% of riders fatally injured in states with universal helmet laws weren't wearing a helmet, while 79% of riders in states without helmet laws weren't, and 64% of those in states with partial laws that only require specific riders to wear them, usually those under a certain age. Overall, studies show helmets are approximately 37% effective in preventing fatalities and 67% effective in preventing serious head injuries. Clearly it's a good idea to wear a helmet whether or not state law requires it. In states where a helmet is mandatory, it must meet safety standards set by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).
In contrast, most states require that riders wear eye protection, whether a helmet visor or approved goggles, although some states make exception for motorcycles with a windshield, and a few only require it for off-road riding. As most riders know from hard experience, a collision with an insect or debris at normal riding speeds can have catastrophic consequences.
Motorcycle Equipment – Almost all states require that motorcycles be equipped with standard safety equipment, although the requirements differ greatly from state to state. Most require sideview mirrors and, with the exception of Mississippi and Missouri, rear passenger seats.
Only about half of the states require turn signals and daytime headlight use, and about the same number mandate safety inspections. In many states footrests for passengers are required, and handlebars may not exceed a certain height. Taillights and brake lights are also necessary in a majority of the U.S.
Although a motorcycle purchased from a dealer will usually have the required equipment already installed, that's not necessarily the case for bikes bought used from a private seller. It's important to check the state mandated equipment list when buying a used motorcycle.
Traffic Laws – Motorcycles are required to follow the same traffic laws as other vehicles. However some states have different rules for sharing the road.
Most states prohibit riders from riding between lanes of slow or stopped vehicles, such as in a traffic jam. The majority of states allow riders to ride side-by-side in the same lane, though some mandate that the motorcycles be staggered, with one riding to the side and slightly behind the other.
Traffic laws are intended to ensure the safety of drivers, as well as provide for the orderly flow of traffic. Following the laws will reduce injuries and deaths, and help riders avoid expensive traffic citations.