An Overview of California Motorcycle Law

If you own a motorcycle in California, then you already know what a great place it is to ride. Temperate weather, top notch scenery, and tens of thousands of miles of paved roads means that getting out on your bike is almost always a pleasure. The over 800,000 registered motorcycles in California, more than any other state, reflect this fact.

However, owning a motorcycle comes with certain responsibilities, both to yourself and to the people you share the road with. The feeling of freedom that driving a motorcycle brings can be a danger when the rules for safely operating a bike are ignored. That’s why in this article, we’re going to take an overview look at California’s motorcycle laws. Whether you’re a longtime rider or thinking of getting a motorcycle of your own, a solid understanding of these laws will give you a better chance of avoiding an accident or injury while out on the open road.

License Requirements

In California, you must have a Class M1 driver’s license in order to legally operate a motorcycle. (There is also a class M2 license available which allows you to operate a motorized cycle or scooter with an engine under 150cc.) If you already have a Class A, B, or C license, the M1 classification will be added to your existing license after you complete testing. If you don’t already have an existing license, you can still qualify for an M1 license, but your testing process will be different.

In general, to obtain an M1 license you need to complete the usual license application, pass a vision test, get fingerprinted, pay the required fees, etc. You’ll also need to pass the motorcycle written test and the motorcycle skills test.

The motorcycle skills test is a physical test designed to demonstrate competence in maneuvering a motorcycle through common traffic situations. It includes a pre-trip inspection where you will be asked to identify some of the common items on your bike, including the starter, clutch, throttle, etc. You will them be asked to drive your motorcycle through various patterns marked out by traffic cones and demonstrate your ability to change gears and smoothly stop and start.

California also offers a Motorcycle Safety Program. Upon successful completion of this program, the DMV may waive the motorcycle skills test part of the M1 licensing process.

Safety Gear Requirements

Head trauma accounts for the majority of serious and fatal injuries suffered by motorcycle riders in California. Riders who are wearing a U.S. Department of Transportation compliant helmet are three times more likely to survive a motorcycle accident than riders who are not wearing a helmet. This is why the State of California requires all motorcycle riders and passengers to wear a DOT certified helmet.

It is also highly recommended, but not required, that anyone on a motorcycle wear proper face protection, as well as a jacket, pants, sturdy boots or shoes, and gloves. In addition, a rider can wear ear plugs, as long as they don’t interfere with the ability to hear traffic noise. Helmet speakers are limited to one for the same reason.

Equipment Requirements

California law requires that all motorcycles be equipped with certain items in order to be considered “street legal”. Each of these items is required or, in some instances prohibited, in order to guarantee both the safety of the motorcycle operator and the occupants of the vehicles around him or her.

To begin with, all motorcycles manufactured after 1977 are required to operate with a daytime headlight. Left and right mirrors are also required, as is a turn signal and brake lights. A full and operating engine exhaust system is required on every bike. However, a passenger seat and footrest is only required if a passenger is riding on the motorcycle.

Motorcycle Traffic Law Requirements

Under California law, motorcycles are required to carry the same minimum liability insurance as cars. They are also required to obey the same rules of the road as any other vehicle.

However, motorcycles do not perform like any other vehicle. They have a higher top end speed than a car. They are also capable of accelerating much faster. Size-wise, they are smaller and have a lower profile than other vehicles and are generally more maneuverable. Because of this, the State of California allows motorcycles to drive two ways that other vehicles cannot.

Lane Sharing

Lane sharing occurs when two motorcycles or a motorcycle and a car occupy the same lane at the same time, side by side. It is only legal on larger roads where there is more than one lane in each direction. The DMV disapproves of the practice, calling it unsafe. However, despite this disapproval, the state legislature has not taken action to make the practice illegal.

Lane sharing was actually introduced to prevent another perceived safety hazard - motorcycles from becoming trapped between two vehicles in bumper to bumper traffic. The idea was that the motorcycle could use its superior acceleration and smaller size to move out of a potentially dangerous situation quickly.

Lane Splitting

Lane splitting occurs when a motorcycle travels in the middle of two lanes of traffic at a higher rate of speed than the other vehicles around it. For years, the California Highway Patrol allowed lane splitting to occur, despite a lack of legislation that legalized the practice. (Ostensibly, the CHP had an interest they were trying to protect, since lane splitting allowed their officers to get to the crime and accident scenes more quickly.)

Studies conducted by the University of Southern California showed that the practice of lane splitting actually made operating a motorcycle safer because a rider is able to move out from behind slower moving vehicles, thereby avoiding the increased danger of collision that occurs when motorcycles are caught in stop and go traffic. Finally, in August of 2016, a law was enacted that officially made lane splitting by a motorcycle legal in the State of California.