Nobody expects an accident to happen, but it’s important to be prepared for when they do.
The California Highway Patrol (CHP) reports that 269,031 people were injured and 3,737 people were killed in traffic collisions in 2019.
By learning more about California motorcycle laws, riders can understand their rights and responsibilities while on the road and how to recover damages if they’re injured in an accident due to someone else’s negligence.
Here’s what you need to know about motorcycle laws in California.
Motorcycle License Requirements in California
To operate a motorcycle in California, you must have a valid driver's license. There are two classes of motorcycle licenses:
Class M1: Allows you to operate any two-wheeled motorcycle and vehicles listed under the M2 classification.
Class M2: Allows you to operate mopeds, any bicycle with an attached motor, and motorized bicycles.
According to the California DMV, motorists over the age of 21 don’t need an instruction permit before applying for a motorcycle driver’s license. They can get a license by completing an approved California Motorcyclist Safety Program training course or passing a motorcycle driving test at a state DMV office.
You’ll need to:
Pass a knowledge test
Have your fingerprints taken
Pass a vision exam
Take a motorcycle driving test or submit a Certificate of Completion of Motorcycle Training (DL 389)
Pay the required fees
To get your license, you’ll also need proof of your identity, residency, and financial responsibility that meets or exceeds California Insurance Requirements.
If you’re under 21, you must hold a motorcycle instruction permit for six months before applying for a license.
After meeting this requirement, you need to go to the DMV and:
Submit your instruction permit
Show proof of completion for driver education and training
Provide a Certificate of Completion of Motorcycle Training (DL 389)
After meeting these requirements, you’ll receive a motorcycle driver’s license.
Riders under 18 must meet these same requirements and obtain a signature from a parent or guardian giving them permission to drive a motorcycle.
California Motorcyclist Safety Program Training Course (CMSP)
The CMSP is a training program that provides riders with hands-on training and knowledge to prepare them for operating a motorcycle. Riders over 21 are encouraged to take the course, but only individuals under 21 are required by law to take the CMSP.
Riders who complete the CMSP and submit a Certificate of Completion of Motorcycle Training (DL 389) can waive the DMV motorcycle skills test.
California Motorcycle Helmet Laws
California Vehicle Code (CVC) § 27803 requires all motorcyclists and passengers in California to wear a U.S. DOT-compliant safety helmet when riding a motorcycle or motorized bicycle.
To comply with this law, helmets should:
Weigh approximately three pounds
Have a sturdy riveted chin strap
Not have any elements that extend more than two-tenths of an inch from the surface of a helmet
Have an inner liner that is about one inch thick
Have a DOT sticker on the helmet to certify that it complies with the U.S. DOT Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS)
This law is meant to protect riders and passengers from suffering severe injuries and head trauma if they are involved in a motorcycle accident.
If you are caught riding a motorcycle without a helmet, penalties may include fines of up to $250 and up to one year of probation.
Other Motorcycle Safety Equipment Laws
The CVC established several safety requirements that riders must comply with to legally operate a motorcycle:
CVC 26709 requires all motorcycles to be fitted with left and right mirrors.
CVC 27801 requires handlebars not to be installed in a position that would put the driver’s hands more than six inches above shoulder height while seated on the bike.
All motorcycles built and registered on or after January 1st, 1973, must have working front and rear turn signals.
Motorcycles manufactured from 2013 onwards must have exhaust systems that comply with the Motorcycle Anti-Tampering Act.
All motorcyclists must have a minimum of one headlight switched on at night.
State law requires all motorcycles to feature taillights that remain switched on for at least 15 minutes after the engine is turned off.
CVC § 27000 requires all motorcycles to be equipped with a horn in good working order and capable of emitting sound audible from at least 200 feet under normal conditions.
Motorcyclists who don’t meet these requirements may be subject to fines and fees depending on the specific violation.
Lane Splitting in California
Lane splitting is the act of riding a motorcycle between two lanes of traffic going in the same direction. This is often done when traffic is stopped or slow-moving. This is allowed in California as long as riders do not endanger themselves or other drivers.
California is one of few states in the country in which lane splitting is legal. While state law allows riders to lane split, it should be done with caution as it leaves motorcyclists vulnerable to being struck by cars that are moving with the flow of traffic. Motorcyclists should also be aware of their speed when lane splitting, as they must stay within the speed limit.
Motorcycle Passenger Laws
In California, there is no minimum age requirement for motorcycle passengers. Since there is no age requirement, children are able to ride as passengers on a motorcycle as long as they meet the requirements to not use a child seat, meaning the child must be at least 4’9”.
However, under CVC § 27800, passengers must have their own seats and footrests. Passengers must use their footrests while the motorcycle is in motion. This law also allows passengers to ride in a sidecar.
Passengers are also required to comply with helmet laws while riding on a motorcycle.
Do Visitors Need a California Motorcycle Driver’s License?
Per the California DMV, you can drive a motorcycle in California if you are a visitor who is at least 18 and has a valid motorcycle driver’s license from your home state or country.
If you move to the state, you have 10 days from the date you become a resident to obtain a California motorcycle driver’s license. Your residency is established when you vote in a state election, pay resident tuition, file for a property tax exemption, or take advantage of any other right or benefit that is not extended to nonresidents.
Accident Reporting Requirements
State law requires you to stop if you are involved in an accident, check for injuries to any involved parties, and exchange information with other drivers or motorcyclists.
Vehicle operators or their representatives must file a written report with the CHP or the police department where the accident occurred within 24 hours if the incident resulted in death or injury. However, you do not need to file a separate report if a police officer responds to the scene as they will prepare the written report.
Anyone involved in an accident must report it to the DMV within 10 days if it resulted in an injury, fatality, or property damage of at least $750. The report should include the names and addresses of the involved parties, the time, date, and location of the accident, insurance information, an explanation of damages, and other information about the motorists.
Pure Comparative Negligence
California uses a pure comparative negligence system when determining liability after a motorcycle accident.
This system means that each party involved in an accident is responsible for damages proportional to their level of fault.
This means that even if you are found to be 99% responsible for an accident, you have the right to recover 1% of your damages from the other party. However, you will also be responsible for paying 99% of the other motorist’s damages.
Pure comparative negligence applies when car insurance claims adjusters evaluate claims and when a jury is determining penalties in a personal injury lawsuit.
California Motorcycle Insurance Requirements
You won’t be able to register your motorcycle in California if you don’t meet the state’s minimum insurance requirements.
Your bike must be insured for a minimum of:
$15,000 in bodily injury per person
$30,000 in total bodily injury per accident
$5,000 in property damage per accident
These minimum coverage limits are meant to ensure that all riders will be able to pay for damages they cause to others after an accident.
Motorcycle owners may also consider purchasing additional coverages for more comprehensive protections.
This includes the following coverages:
Comprehensive coverage: Pays for damages outside of your control.
Collision coverage: Pays for damages that result from a collision, regardless of who was at fault.
Medical payments coverage: Pays for you and your passenger’s medical bills after an accident.
Uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage: Covers damages if you are involved in an accident with someone who is uninsured or underinsured.
Total loss coverage: Covers the entire value of a motorcycle that is no more than one model year old if it is totaled.
Roadside assistance: Pays for towing costs if your bike needs to be transported to a body shop.
Accessories coverage: Covers accessories, upgrades, and custom parts you may have added after purchasing your motorcycle.
Carried contents coverage: Covers any belongings you carry on your motorcycle when you get into an accident.
Enhanced injury protection: Provides regular payments for up to two years if you sustain a serious injury that prevents you from working after a covered accident.
While these aren’t required, they provide additional financial protection that can come in handy if you’re ever involved in an accident or experience another covered loss.
How Much Can Someone Sue For a Motorcycle Accident in California?
California law gives personal injury victims the right to recover any damages they sustain after an accident due to someone else’s negligence. This includes economic and non-economic damages.
Economic damages are those that are directly connected to the loss and can be supported with receipts, medical bills, and other documents. This may include the following:
Loss of employment opportunities
Lost earning capacity
Funeral and burial expenses
Non-economic damages are those that can’t be easily calculated, including:
Pain and suffering
Loss of consortium or companionship
Unlike other states, California does not impose a limit on the amount someone can recover for non-economic damages. This means that how much you can sue someone after a motorcycle accident will depend on your ability to prove your economic damages and your ability to demonstrate to the jury how your losses have impacted you in other ways.
It’s important to note that California does not allow you to recover non-economic damages if you don’t have auto insurance. However, you can still sue for economic damages in this case.
The Statute of Limitations in California
Each state has its own statute of limitations regarding personal injury cases. This is the amount of time you have to file a personal injury lawsuit after an accident.
In California, the statute of limitations is two years for personal injury cases, meaning you have two years from the date of your accident to pursue legal action. If you plan to file a lawsuit for property damage, you have three years from the accident's date to do so.
There are some exceptions that may allow this window to be extended. This may apply if you are not able to locate the defendant, the defendant is in prison, there is a reasonable delay in discovering an injury after an accident, or the victim of the accident is a minor.
If you are making a claim against a government entity, you only have six months from the date of the accident to file a lawsuit.
Is California a no-fault state?
California is not a no-fault state. California is an at-fault state, meaning whoever is responsible for an accident must pay for the damages, including injuries and property damage.
This also means that, unlike no-fault states, motorcyclists and drivers can sue the at-fault party for even basic medical expenses after a collision.
Legal Resources for California Motorcycle Accident Victims
If you’ve been injured in a motorcycle accident, you might be interested in pursuing legal action to recover damages and ease your financial burden.
Here are a few helpful legal resources for California motorcycle accident victims to help you understand your rights, responsibilities, and legal options.
California Highway Patrol (CHP)
The CHP provides online resources to help riders learn more about motorcycle safety and laws, which can be useful when determining fault after an accident.
Motorcyclists can also use this website to find information about obtaining a driver’s license, enrolling in the CMSP, and more.
State of California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)
Individuals can visit the California DMV's website to learn more about motorcyclists' rights and responsibilities.
The California Motorcycle Handbook is a great resource that includes information regarding motorcycle licensing requirements, safety equipment requirements, and road rules. This information can be useful when building a case after a motorcycle accident.
The State Bar of California
The State Bar of California offers resources and information to help the public learn more about California state law and how to proceed with certain legal actions.
The website’s public resources include free legal information, lawyer referral services, and information on filing complaints against attorneys. You can also use the website to look up specific lawyers by name and find their contact information and license status.
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