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What Laws Govern Motorcycles in San Diego

After a Motorcycle AccidentFor some, nothing compares to the unique experience of riding a motorcycle. San Diego bikers enjoy an open-air riding experience in ideal weather. However, the trade-off of that experience is that a motorcycle lacks a substantial number of safety features. Motorcycles have no reinforced steel frames surrounding passengers, seat belts, or other protective safety systems that normal passenger vehicles do. When an accident occurs, bikers and their passengers often deal with harsh consequences.

The San Diego County Department of Motor Vehicles counts 85,488 registered motorcycles within its borders. California laws define them as vehicles. As such, bikers must comply with statutes that apply to cars and trucks. However, motorcyclists must further abide by motorcycle-specific laws. While the laws seem complex and burdensome, they are designed to address the unique risks of motorcycle operation and to keep riders safer.

The California Motorcycle Handbook

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles publishes a California Motorcycle Handbook for current and prospective motorcyclists, which explains the relevant laws and requirements in plain language, with the disclaimer that the handbook is intended to serve as a summary of laws and regulations only.

Riders are subject to the exact language in the California Vehicle Code or implementing regulations. While almost no one is likely to read the code and try to figure out the legalese, San Diego motorcycle riders should have a general idea of what the laws are. This piece surveys such laws.

California Motorcycle Statutes

The California Vehicle Code is full of provisions specific to motorcycles. Unless you see a specific motorcycle exclusion, all general motor vehicle provisions also apply to San Diego motorcyclists.

A Motorcycle Is a Vehicle

Section 400 of the California Vehicle Code’s definitions section, Division 1. Words and Phrases Defined, defines what the state recognizes as a motorcycle. It further describes motorized devices that resemble and function similar to motorcycles but do not meet the definition. It is important to recognize that a motorcycle is also a vehicle, but that a vehicle must meet specific conditions to qualify as a motorcycle.

A vehicle must have the following to count as a motorcycle:

  • A seat or saddle for the rider
  • Not more than three wheels in contact with the ground (may have four wheels, if two wheels are a “functional” part of a sidecar)

Section 400 also describes motorcycle-like vehicles, in which the definition establishes that they are not motorcycles.

  • A farm tractor
  • A three-wheeled motor vehicle that meets the motorcycle definition, if it has an enclosed passenger seat, law enforcement uses it for parking enforcement, and they operate it at slow speeds on public streets
  • If a vehicle fits the three-wheeled vehicle definition, it must still comply with motorcycle equipment requirements elsewhere in the code.

Motorized bikes (mopeds), §406

Some motorcycle laws also apply to motorized bikes or mopeds. The definitions section defines motorized bikes as two- or three-wheeled devices with a maximum 30 mile per hour speed and four gross brake horsepower.

Motorcycle Licensing Laws

California Vehicle Code §12500 provides that, unless a person has a valid motorcycle license or driver’s license with a motorcycle endorsement, they cannot drive a motorcycle on California roads or in an off-street parking facility. State license provisions contain exemptions, including:

  • A US officer or employee while using a US-owned vehicle on US business (except if the vehicle is a commercial motor vehicle)
  • A person incidentally operating husbandry implements
  • Under very limited circumstances, a person operating an off-highway vehicle

A Class M2 licensed driver may drive any motorized bicycle, moped, or scooter. A person with a Class M1 license may drive any two-wheeled motorcycle, a motor-driven cycle, or a motorized scooter and any device authorized under Class M2.

Section §12509.5 explains the motorcycle Class M1 and Class M2 licensing process. An applicant must first obtain an instruction permit, which expires after 24 months.

Persons who hold instruction permits may ride with the following restrictions:

  • A permit holder cannot operate a motorcycle when it’s dark
  • They may not ride on freeways with full control of access or grade crossings
  • They may not ride with a passenger, except a licensed instructor

A motorcycle license applicant must also comply with age-based requirements.

  • If you are 15 years and six months but under 18 years, you must have a valid Class C driver’s license or complete driver’s education and training as described in §12814.6, and you must complete a motorcyclist safety program. You must hold the instruction permit for at least six months.
  • If you are between the ages of 18 and 21 years old, you must complete a California Motorcyclist Training safety course, and also must pass the written motorcycle exam. Applicants in this age group must also hold an instruction permit for six months.
  • If you are aged 21 or older, you must pass the written exam. Although the safety course isn’t mandatory for applicants aged 21 years or older, the Department of Motor Vehicles encourages every motorcycle license applicant to take the course, as it teaches valuable riding and safety skills. If you pass the course successfully, you receive a motorcycle skills test waiver.

Equipment Laws

California’s Vehicle Code, Div 12. Equipment of vehicles, Chapter 5, Article 7, Motorcycles, provides mandatory motorcycle riding conditions, which are designed to address the safety issues unique to motorcycle riding. These laws apply to motorcycles and motorized bikes.

Seating, §27800

This section describes motorcycle and moped seating requirements. A passenger must ride on a securely fastened seat with footrests or in an attached passenger sidecar. Seated passengers must keep their feet on the footrests while the bike is moving.

Helmets, §27803

Hemet laws apply to drivers and passengers riding motorcycles, motorized bicycles, or motor-driven bicycles. Both drivers and passengers must wear helmets that comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 218: 49 C.F.R. Sec. 571.218.


  • A helmet must fit the wearer without excessive lateral or vertical movement
  • A helmet must be on one’s head while operating or riding on the motorcycle
  • A helmet must be fastened with a helmet strap
  • No one shall sell a helmet that does not comply with federal safety regulations
  • The helmet requirement generally does not apply to drivers and passengers in a fully enclosed three-wheeled vehicle that is at least 7 feet long and 4 feet wide and weighs 900 pounds or more.

Chapter 2, Lighting Equipment,

  • Article 2. Headlamps and Auxiliary Lamps, §24403: A motorcycle must have a front-mounted fog lamp. It must be at a height that is higher than 12 inches but less than 40 inches. The driver must make sure the beam is angled to prevent left-side, high-intensity illumination four inches below the placement level and 25 feet ahead.
  • Article 5. Signal Lamps and Devices, §24951: All motorcycles manufactured and first registered after January 1, 1973, must have a lamp-style turn signal to indicate a left or right turn.
  • Article 7. Flashing and Colored Lights, §25251.2: A motorcycle may have an upper beam headlamp that allows the driver to modulate between high and low beams, though not to be modulated during darkness. The flash rate must be between 200 and 280 flashes per minute.
  • Article 11. Acetylene Lamps, §25451: A motorcycle may have a single acetylene headlight. It must have a clear glass front, a bright six-inch round mirror, and an acetylene ½ or ⅝ foot burner. It must provide enough illumination to view objects within 115 feet.

Noise Limits

As described in Chapter 5, Article 2.5, §27201 to §27202, Exhaust Systems, all vehicles subject to registration must have an exhaust system that prevents excessive or unusual noise. Motorcycle noise restrictions vary from private passenger vehicle restrictions, but the compliance test is the same. A vehicle must not exceed a specified noise level based on California Highway Patrol testing at 50-feet from the centerline of a roadway. The test determines an exhaust system’s dbA. Acoustics consultants Softdb explain that dbA is a weighted scale for judging loudness against the hearing threshold of the human ear.

For motorcycles, the allowable noise level varies depending on the cycle manufacture date.

  • After 1969 and before 1973: 88 dbA
  • After 1972, and before 1975: 86 dbA
  • After 1974, and before 1986: 83 dbA
  • After 1985: 80 dbA

A motorcycle’s exhaust system must comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Noise Control Act, noise emission standards. A San Diego motorcyclist cannot park, use, or operate a California-registered motorcycle unless the exhaust system bears the appropriate EPA sticker.

Financial Responsibility Laws

Division 7, Chapter 1, Article 2, Financial Responsibility, §16000 – §16078

All San Diego vehicle operators must be able to verify their financial responsibility at all times. While driving, they must carry acceptable evidence.

In an accident, unless one or more drivers becomes incapacitated, they must exchange information, including:

  • Driver’s license information
  • Evidence of financial responsibility

Section 16020 provides what types of evidence prove an owner’s or driver’s financial responsibility.

  • An insurance company certificate of insurance or a certificate from a charitable risk pool
  • Certification of self-insurance or a deposit letter
  • An insurance binder pending policy issuance
  • Verification that the U.S. government owns or leases the vehicle
  • Evidence from a financial responsibility electronic reporting system

You may be subject to a fine of up to $250 if you fail to comply with these post-accident requirements.

Highlight of Helmet Use and Safety

California’s motorcycle helmet law provides a brief paragraph that explains why the legislature added this requirement. It explains that the legislators wanted to provide a safety benefit for those who ride motorcycles, motor-driven cycles, and motorized bikes.

The helmet is one of the few pieces of equipment that has the potential to save a motorcyclist’s life, and even to spare a motorcyclist from sustaining more serious injuries in an accident. While it can’t prevent injury altogether, a helmet reduces the chance of severe and fatal injuries when an accident occurs.

If a motorcyclist is wearing a helmet at the time of an accident, they may still sustain varying degrees of lower-body trauma. Head injuries don’t occur as often, but when they do, they often cause more extensive damage than other types of injuries. Severe injuries sometimes occur when a crash ejects a biker onto the pavement or over a car’s hood.

You won’t always see blood, an open wound, or other externally visible injury evidence. Severe injuries often occur internally due to inevitable head blows and body jolts. Brain injury sometimes occurs when the brain moves around inside the skull.

The CDC’s Motorcycle Safety page explains how helmets reduce the chances of injury and death in the event of a crash. Their research shows that helmets provide significant protection to the head and brain, reducing a biker’s risk of death by an estimated 37 percent and risk of head injuries by 69 percent.

Do You Need an Attorney if You Are Injured in a San Diego Motorcycle Accident?

Motorcycle Accident Lawyer, John Gomez

You should get an attorney if you are injured in a San Diego motorcycle accident. The claim process for a motorcycle accident case can become complicated very quickly. An experienced San Diego motorcycle accident injury attorney can help protect your legal and financial interests.

You might not hear from the person who injured you, but their insurance company investigator will probably come knocking on your door. Often, they will only collect information to see if they have grounds to deny or reduce your claim.

Generally, your initial meeting with a motorcycle accident injury attorney is free. You have a chance to ask important questions and learn about your legal options in a confidential setting. Ultimately, you decide if and when you want to take legal action.

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