California motorcycle laws require riders to follow the same traffic rules and carry the same 15/30/5 minimum insurance as automobile drivers.
But since motorcycles are potentially more dangerous to riders in the event of an accident, motorcyclists must also:
- maintain a class M driver’s license, which requires passing special skills and knowledge tests; and
- always wear a motorcycle helmet while the vehicle is on.
In this article, our Los Angeles personal injury attorneys answer the following faqs about California motorcycle laws, including:
- 1. What are California’s motorcycle requirements?
- 2. Do I have to wear a helmet?
- 3. Can motorcycles have passengers?
- 4. Is lane splitting allowed in California?
- 5. How do I get a motorcycle license?
- 6. Do I need motorcycle insurance?
- 7. What are the laws for motorcycling under the influence?
Injured in a motorcycle crash? Learn about filing a motorcycle accident lawsuit in California.
1. What are California’s motorcycle requirements?
California state law defines motorcycle as a “motor vehicle having a seat or saddle for the use of the rider, designed to travel on not more than three wheels in contact with the ground.”1
Motorcycles on California roadways are required to meet these three conditions:
- The seat is low enough so that the driver can reach the ground with their feet;
- The handlebars are within six inches above or below the driver’s shoulder height;2 and
- When it is dark, the vehicle must have one or two lighted headlamps.3
2. Do I have to wear a helmet?
Yes. California helmet law requires motorcycle drivers and passengers to wear headgear that meets California state and federal standards for safety and construction. And the back of the helmet must have a sticker with the Department of Transportation insignia.
Failure to wear a motorcycle safety helmet (27803 VC) in the state of California is an infraction carrying a fine.4
3. Can motorcycles have passengers?
Passengers are allowed on motorcycles in California only if:
- the passenger is on a seat securely fashioned to the vehicle to the driver’s rear and has their own footrests; or
- the passenger is in a sidecar attached to the vehicle and designed to hold passengers.
While the vehicle is in motion, passengers to the rear of the driver must keep their feet on the footrests at all times.5
4. Is lane-splitting allowed in California?
Yes. California is one of the only states that permits motorcycle riders to lane split, which is driving on the line between two lanes of traffic.
However, motorcyclists should exercise reason and good judgment when determining whether lane splitting in a particular situation would jeopardize traffic safety.6
5. How do I get a motorcycle license?
People need a Class M1 license from the California DMV to operate motorcycles in the state. This is an entirely separate license from the Class C license required to drive regulation automobiles.
To obtain an M1 license, applicants must:
- complete a driver’s license application (DL44) or an ID card application (DL44C)
- pass a vision exam
- take the applicable skills tests and knowledge tests
- submit fingerprints
- take a photograph
- pay a fee (currently $39)
If you are under 21 years old, to get a class M1 license you also need a certificate of completion of motorcycle training (DL389) and must have an instruction permit for at least six months. Instruction permits (like learner’s permits) forbid you from driving a motorcycle with passengers, on the freeway, or at night.
And if you are 15-and-a-half to 17 years old, to get a class M1 license you also need a class C license or a certificate of completion for driver education and behind-the-wheel driver training.7
People caught driving a motorcycle without a current and valid Class M license can be prosecuted for an infraction or a misdemeanor in California.8
6. Do I need motorcycle insurance?
Yes. Californians are required to maintain liability insurance for all their motor vehicles, which includes motorcycles. The minimum allowable coverage is 15/30/5, which stands for:
- $15,000 for bodily injury per person;
- $30,000 for bodily injury per accident; and
- $5,000 for property damage9
People caught driving a motorcycle without proof of financial responsibility (insurance) are prosecuted for an infraction in California.10
7. What are the laws for motorcycling under the influence?
As with automobile motorists, motorcyclists in California can be charged with DUI for:
- driving while impaired by alcohol or drugs; or
- driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08% or higher (even if the rider is not intoxicated).
Motorcyclists stopped by police on suspicion of DUI may be asked to take a preliminary breath test and to perform field sobriety tests. Then if there is an arrest, motorcyclists are required to take a breath or a blood test. (Though if the officer suspects drug use, then the motorcyclists must take a blood test since breath tests cannot detect drugs.)
A first-time offense of drunk driving with no major injuries is a misdemeanor carrying:
- a suspended jail sentence
- DUI school
- a fine
- a suspended license (though defendants can usually continue driving with an ignition interlock device in their vehicle)
Predictably, successive DUIs or DUIs causing injuries carry stiffer penalties.
Five common defenses to fight motorcycling under the influence charges in California are:
- the police officer lacked reasonable suspicion to make the traffic stop or lacked probable cause to make the arrest;
- the driver was suffering from a medical episode (such as a diabetic coma) that appeared like intoxication to the officer;
- the driver was suffering from GERD or acid reflux, causing the breathalyzer to return an inaccurate result;
- the breathalyzer was defective or had not been calibrated recently;
- the police made a material error, such as giving inaccurate instructions for the field sobriety tests11
Injured? Call a California personal injury attorney…
Call our California motorcycle accident attorneys for legal advice if you were injured in an accident. Our experienced motorcycle accident lawyers fight for the maximum payout to compensate you for medical expenses, lost earnings, and pain and suffering. And we take zero payment unless we win your case.
See our related article on electric scooter laws in California.
- California Motorcyclist Safety Program (CMSP) training course
- California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)
- U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)
- Motorcycle Safety – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- California Vehicle Code 400 VC.
- 27801 VC.
- 25650 VC. 25650.5 VC. See also 27202.1. VC re. exhaust systems and 24951 VC re. turn signals.
- 27803 VC. Bianco v. California Highway Patrol (Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division One, 1994) 24 Cal. App. 4th 1113. Department of California Highway Patrol v. Superior Court (Court of Appeal of California, Sixth Appellate District, 2008) 158 Cal. App. 4th 726.
- 27800 VC.
- Motorcycles and Similar Vehicles, California Highway Patrol. 21658.1 VC. Note that lane sharing is also legal in California.
- California motorcycle license requirements, DMV. Note that M1 licenses permit the holder to operate 2-wheeled motorcycles, motor-driven cycles, motorized scooters, motorized bicycles, mopeds, motorcycles with a side car attached, and three-wheel motorcycles. During the motorcycle skills test, applicants will be asked to identify the motorcycle’s horn, brakes, gear selector, throttle, kill switch, starter, clutch, headline dimmer switch, and turn signals. Applicants also must demonstrate a circle ride, slow ride, gear shift ride, and a serpentine ride.
- 12500(a) VC.
- California insurance requirements, DMV.
- 16028(a) VC
- 23152(a) VC. 23152(b) VC.