Motorcycle Safety: Laws and Technology Advancements
Safety is important to responsible motorcycle riders, and you can improve your experience and stay safe by keeping up with advances in technology, as well as by being aware of the laws where you live or travel.
Motorcycle safety laws are determined at the state level, and are primarily aimed at helmet use, although most states have regulations covering other aspects of riding and ownership.
As recently as 1975, the use of helmets was mandatory for all riders in 47 states and the District of Columbia, at least partly because federal law required such laws as a condition for the granting of highway funds. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), when Congress repealed that stipulation in 1976, states began changing their laws to modify or eliminate compulsory helmet use. This trend accelerated in the mid-1990s when Congress also eliminated the financial incentives that had been in place.
Today 19 states, plus Washington D.C and US territories including Puerto Rico, Guam and the US Virgin Islands require all riders to wear helmets, while 28 others have laws requiring those under a certain age to wear helmets. The age requirement varies, but is generally between 17 and 21. In Florida, Michigan, and Texas, riders can achieve exemption from the helmet law by either obtaining additional insurance, passing a safety course, or both, again according to the NCSL. Two even require reflectorized helmets. Only Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire have no regulations governing helmet usage.
In the European Union and the United Kingdom, mandatory helmet laws for all riders are universal.
Just as varied as helmet laws are the individual state rules around eye protection. According to the Motorcycle Legal Foundation, fourteen states have no rules about protecting your eyes, but the rest have some form of eyewear safety requirement, whether a universal rule stipulating the use of goggles, or goggles unless your bike is equipped with a windscreen, or goggles unless you are over a certain age.
Another common regulation covers daytime headlight usage. According to the Motorcycle Legal Foundation, there are four levels of requirement: daytime lights required, required and modulation allowed, required with exceptions for early models, and no requirement. Most states require daylight headlight usage, with half allowing for modulation (lights which vary from dim to bright, resulting in greater visibility to other drivers) and a handful allowing exceptions for older cycles. Only Hawaii, Maryland, and Rhode Island currently have no regulations daytime lights.
Among the more controversial riding practices is lane splitting. While only explicitly allowed in California, it is specifically prohibited in 12 states and not mentioned in the remainder. Utah recently enacted a modified “lane filtering” law, legalizing a commonplace practice in which a motorcyclist moves between two lanes of stopped traffic to reach the front of a line. This is different than lane splitting, which takes place in moving traffic, often at high speeds. According to RideApart, Oregon has a bill currently under consideration in its legislature which would allow lane splitting in traffic which has stopped or is proceeding at less than 10 miles per hour. Other states considering similar legislation in 2020 include Arizona, Washington, Connecticut, and Virginia. Hawaii has narrow roads that make splitting dangerous or impossible, but the state now allows shoulder surfing.
Only five states currently address the ability to carry passengers, with restrictions on age of passengers prohibited below 5 years (or up to 8 years, depending on the state). But in every case, the rider must follow the relevant helmet law.
Licensing requirements vary from state to state, similar to safety requirements. 14 states presently have licensing rules that vary according to engine size, as reported by ultimatemotorcycling.com. Many others have licensing that is dependent on the completion of training or a combination of training and age. The myriad of rules becomes even more confusing when you add off-roading into the mix– since off-roaders may not even be required to have a motorcycle license, but may be regulated by external considerations such as being able to reach all the controls (which is the determining factor in California.) 21 states require a motorcycle education class, and surprisingly only 23 require a driver’s license.
States have varying requirements on equipment including rearview mirrors, fenders, handlebar height, turn indicators, speedometers and odometers, mufflers and other noise level specifications, tire performance standards, operator footwear, and headphones usage.
Does it work?
According to the Centers for Disease Control National Center for Injury Prevention, the most important safety measure for motorcycle usage is the wearing of proper helmets, which reduce the risk of death by 37% and the risk of head injury by 69%. The NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) says that 4985 motorcyclists died in accidents in 2018, and many could have been saved by wearing a helmet. CDC also encourages motorcyclists to be prepared for their ride, be aware of the weather, and never ride when impaired. Experienced riders recommend the adoption of ATGATT–All The Gear All The Time– to urge enthusiasts to go beyond the legally mandated gear and wear helmets (even if not required by law in their state) and include protective clothing and footwear as well.
Riders who want to go further than what is legally required to ensure their own safety or that of their passengers have options that are advancing with new technology.
Clothing with airbags. Since motorcycles don’t generally offer the same protective cushion of airbags that cars can provide, you can now buy clothing that comes equipped with air bags that will deploy in the event of a crash.
ABS. Motorcycles increasingly come with available anti-lock brakes to prevent the wheels from locking up, and it makes a big difference. According to the Institute for Highway Safety, the fatal crash rate for motorcycles with ABS is 31 percent lower than for the same models without ABS. Newer options include cornering ABS.
Electronic tire pressure monitors. Low tire pressure can affect the quality of the ride, and the response of the bike. Many newer models come with tire pressure monitors to remind you when it’s time to add air.
Automatic clutch and shift. While traditionalists may be aghast, some younger enthusiasts are happy about the advent of the automatic clutch and shift options, which have shortened the learning curve for new riders.
Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communication. When available, this technology will let nearby cars know that a motorcycle is there, decreasing the potential for accidental impact.
LED lighting. This can be on the bike itself or the helmet, and as with the communication, the goal is to increase the likelihood that the nearby vehicles know the motorcycle is there.