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South Dakota, in the heart of the Midwest, boasts a rich motorcycle culture and has positioned itself as a choice destination for enthusiasts. The Mount Rushmore State hosts the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, one of the world’s biggest motorcycle events, every August. For ten days, motorcycle riders and motorcycle fans flock to the Black Hills region to enjoy the summer. The rally’s highest attendance rate, in 2015, tracked over 700,000 guests.

South Dakota has more motorcycle riders per capita than any other state. But this prominence naturally gives rise to increased risk. Though motorcycles make up just approximately 7.6% of the motor vehicles registered in the state, they disproportionally represent an average of 17.5% of total fatalities. Moreover, 70% of individuals involved in fatal motorcycle accidents in South Dakota are from out-of-state. 

The longstanding popularity of motorcycles—for in-state and visiting drivers alike—has spurred the South Dakota government to hold comprehensive education campaigns about rider safety and managing risk on the road through South Dakota Rides. So before you rev up your engine and embark on an adventure, it's crucial to familiarize yourself with the motorcycle laws that the state abides by. Understanding these laws ensures your safety and compliance with local statutes, letting you navigate the roads on your motorcycle responsibly and confidently.

Permits and Licenses for South Dakota Motorcycle Drivers

Before anything else, if you need help figuring out how to operate a motorcycle, you can get a motorcycle instruction permit from the South Dakota government. Applicants must be at least 16 years old. The motorcycle instruction permit is valid for one year and allows the holder to operate their motorcycle between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. Permit holders must always be accompanied by a licensed motorcycle operator — who must be at least 18 years old and have at least a year of riding experience — driving a separate motorcycle. Learners’ permit holders are not allowed to carry a passenger on a motorcycle.

If you’re ready to get a South Dakota motorcycle license, the state will need some paperwork. Submit a completed license application form with supporting ID documents and proof of residential address (like a bill, vehicle registration, or a rental or lease agreement).  

To get your motorcycle license, you must pass three examinations: a vision test, a written knowledge test (where you must score at least 80%), and a motorcycle driving test. To take these exams, schedule an appointment with a South Dakota Driver Exam Station.

(If you need help preparing for the test, review the South Dakota Motorcycle Operator Manual. The South Dakota Safety Council, the state's designated motorcycle safety training center, also holds motorcycle rider safety classes. If you go this route, the SDSC will administer the license test at the end of the course, streamlining the process.)

Only individuals who have a motorcycle instruction permit or a motorcycle driver’s license can legally operate their vehicles on South Dakota’s public roadways. Violating this law is a Class 2 misdemeanor. Remember that having a driver’s license entails following the rules of the road in South Dakota.

Roadway Laws for South Dakota Motorcycle Drivers

Motorcycles are entitled to full use of a traffic lane along South Dakota’s roadways, and no other vehicle can deprive a motorcycle of this access. This ensures that motorcyclists are afforded more or less the same traffic rights and responsibilities as drivers of four-wheeled vehicles. However, to accommodate the distinct dimensions and roadway behavior of motorcycles, some additional special rules apply.

Two motorcycles cannot drive abreast or side-by-side in a single lane. Motorcycles are also not allowed to traverse the gaps between lines or rows of vehicles or operate between adjacent lanes of traffic, also known as lane splitting. Bikers are also forbidden from overtaking and then passing in the same lane as the vehicle being overtaken. Violations of these laws are a Class 2 misdemeanor.

South Dakota Motorcycle Helmet and Safety Gear Rules

In 2022, 668 individuals were involved in motorcycle crashes in South Dakota. Thirty-three percent of the total injury crashes involved individuals not wearing safety gear; 48.2% of the 488 crashes involved riders not wearing helmets.

In South Dakota, motorcycle drivers and passengers under 18 years old who are plying public streets or highways are required to wear a helmet. Protective helmets for minors must meet Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 218. Motorcycle drivers of legal age cannot carry as passengers minors who are not wearing helmets. A violation of the helmet law for minors is a Class 2 misdemeanor.

For motorcycle riders beyond the purview of the law, the state recommends the use of helmets that are compliant with US Department of Transportation guidelines, particularly those bearing a label from the Snell Memorial Foundation. Helmets, whether full-face or three-quarters coverage, must allow the wearer to see as far to the sides as necessary, must fit the head snugly, and should be securely fastened while the rider is operating the motorcycle.

The state also requires the use of eye protection gear like goggles, unless the motorcycle is equipped with a windscreen that is designed to provide adequate eye protection when the driver is in a normal seating position. The use of tinted or shaded eye gear during low-light hours, however, is prohibited. A violation of these rules is considered a petty offense.

Motorcycle Equipment Regulations in South Dakota

The South Dakota Motorcycle Manual outlines relevant sections of the state’s Codified Laws but in plain and accessible language. Among the topics it explores are parts regulations for the motorcycle itself and driver conduct regarding that equipment. Violations of the following safety measures are each a Class 2 misdemeanor.

Motorcycles must have permanently attached seats for the driver, and drivers can only carry a passenger if their motorcycle is permanently equipped with a passenger seat and passenger's foot pegs. Drivers also must keep a clear view of the road ahead of them, so carrying a passenger in a way that obstructs their line of sight is prohibited. 

Handlebars must not be positioned in such a way that the grips are at or above the shoulder height of the driver. Drivers must keep both hands on the handlebars when they’re on their bike—they are thus not allowed to carry a package, bundle, or any other item that prevents them from operating their vehicle properly. 

Motorcycles must be equipped with a horn that can be heard for at least 200 feet from the vehicle and a brake system that is capable of stopping the motorcycle in 30 feet or less at a speed of 20 mph. Proper lighting is crucial to operating a motorcycle safely, so bikes must have at least one (but no more than two) headlights; a red tail light that comes on when the headlamp is activated and which is visible for at least 500 feet to the rear; and a red stop light that is lit when the brakes are activated and which is visible for at least 300 feet to the rear.

In addition to the above, state and federal laws require the following equipment on the vehicle: At least one rearview mirror; a properly maintained muffler; at least one reflector on the rear of the motorcycle; and a white license plate light, which is lit when the headlamp is on.

South Dakota Motorcycle Insurance Requirements

Motorcycle drivers in South Dakota are required by law to maintain financial responsibility for their vehicle, and one of the forms this takes is liability insurance. This mandatory motorcycle liability policy must have the following, at minimum:

  • Bodily injury coverage, which protects you against a claim made by someone injured in a traffic accident that you are liable for. Policies must start at $25,000 for death or bodily injury to one person for one incident and $50,000 for death or bodily injury to two or more persons.

  • Property damage liability financially protects you against a claim made by someone whose property was damaged in an accident you are liable for. Policies must begin at $25,000 for damage to or destruction of property for one incident. 

  • Uninsured motorist coverage pays you, resident members of your family, and your passengers for personal injuries caused by an uninsured motorist or a hit-and-run driver. This does not cover damage to your motorcycle.

  • Underinsured motorist coverage, which makes up for the personal injury costs that can’t be covered by the other driver if they have inadequate insurance.

    • For example, if the other motorist has 25/50 coverage and you have 100/300 of underinsured motorist coverage, your insurance will cover you if your personal medical fees exceed $25,000. This is up to a maximum of $100,000 (your coverage policy) minus $25,000 (the other driver’s liability coverage), which rounds out to $75,000 of your uninsured motorist coverage.

Motorcycle operators can always opt for higher liability coverage, to safeguard against often steep healthcare costs. Drivers should also take into consideration the limitations of policies. In the above scenario for underinsured motorists, the coverage is not stackable. If your medical bills exceed $100,000 (your coverage policy), you cannot add the other party’s $25,000 liability coverage and your full $100,000 of underinsured coverage. 

Driving without insurance or not carrying proof of financial responsibility for your motorcycle is a Class 2 misdemeanor in South Dakota. The state increases penalties for repeat offenders. So driving uninsured could subject you to $100 to $500 in fines; 30 days to one year of driver’s license suspension; a subsequent $20 to $200 in license reinstatement fees; and jail time for 30 days, either in lieu of your fine or in addition to that fine.

South Dakota Is an At-Fault State for Insurance Claims

South Dakota follows the “at fault” rule for motorcycle accident insurance claims. If you are found to be at fault or responsible for the collision, then you are liable for paying for the other driver’s bodily injury and property damage costs.

According to the state’s insurance guidelines, if you get into an accident on your motorcycle and the other driver is at fault, then the other driver’s insurer must first collect sufficient evidence that proves you hold no responsibility for causing the accident. Insurers cannot automatically assign comparative negligence (or a share of the responsibility for the accident) to you just because you were at the scene of an accident. But note that if you are found partially at fault, the insurance carrier may reduce the payout or deny payment to you altogether.

How Much Can Someone Sue for a Motorcycle Accident in South Dakota?

Though there is no standard amount for accident lawsuits, a motorcyclist in South Dakota seeking compensation following an accident can generally be awarded economic and non-economic damages. Economic damages tend to cover past and future medical bills, rehabilitative costs, and property damage reimbursements, as well as lost wages following your inability to get back to work as you recuperate from your injuries. Non-economic damages are meant to cover a diminished quality of life following an accident, such as pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, and loss of companionship, services, and consortium.

Many factors affect the monetary damages a motorcycle accident victim can receive, which is why it’s hard to give a median or average figure. Losses are variable from victim to victim, though more severe injuries will naturally merit higher damages.

Prudent personal injury attorneys also caution motorcycle accident victims against biker bias, wherein jury members might deem motorcycle riders as generally more reckless, impulsive, or danger-seeking due to cultural and social connotations attached to the vehicle. Then again, given that South Dakota is a haven for bikers and motorcycle culture is entrenched in the state’s way of life, your accident attorney can use these to your case’s advantage. 

South Dakota Is a Comparative Negligence State for Motorcycle Accident Lawsuits

Motorcyclists who have been injured in an accident have the option to sue the other driver and let the courts decide who is responsible for shouldering their losses. South Dakota follows a unique kind of comparative negligence system in evaluating damages awards in motorcycle accident lawsuits, the “slight/gross” guideline. 

This means that you can only receive compensation for the injuries or property damage that you incurred—if it’s proven that your share of the responsibility for the accident was “slight” and the other driver’s was “gross.” 

Note that there is generally no set legal definition for what “slight” and “gross” responsibilities are, so there tends to be a lot of wiggle room for insurance adjusters, attorneys, juries, and judges. The most considerable limit for these terms was explored in 1997, when the case of Wood vs. City of Crooks defined having 30% of the responsibility for a personal injury accident as “more than slight.” So this narrows down the criteria but is, again, not strictly definitive. 

This unique comparative negligence rule is enshrined in the South Dakota Codified Laws as follows: "The fact that the plaintiff may have been guilty of contributory negligence does not bar a recovery when the contributory negligence of the plaintiff was slight in comparison with the negligence of the defendant, but in such a case, the damages shall be reduced in proportion to the amount of the plaintiff's contributory negligence.”

Statute of Limitations for Motorcycle Accident Lawsuits in South Dakota

Should a motorcycle rider be involved in an accident and be considering filing a personal injury lawsuit to recover compensation for their losses, they only have three years from the date of the accident to do so. For families of wrongful death victims, the same three-year statute of limitations applies, but the clock starts ticking on the date of the victim’s death and not on the date of the accident. Lawsuits that involve only property damage have a longer statute of limitations of six years.

Legal Resources for South Dakota Motorcycle Accident Victims

South Dakota Crash Assistance Program

The South Dakota Department of Public Safety’s Crash Assistance Program was created for victims of vehicular accidents. It educates site users about their legal rights, the process of reporting an incident, and ways to recover from their traumatic experiences. The program’s webpage points readers to relevant projects, such as the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund, as well as online guides to help them deal with financial losses, trauma, and grief.

South Dakota Free Legal Answers Program

The Free Legal Answers Program of the American Bar Association maintains a site specifically for the people of South Dakota. The initiative functions as an online legal advice clinic staffed by pro bono lawyers who welcome questions related to motorcycle accidents and other non-criminal law matters. Adults from low-income households are qualified to use the service.

State Bar of South Dakota Access to Justice Program

A2J is an effort to make legal services accessible to all South Dakota citizens. It caters to individuals living at or below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines, as well as individuals with disabilities, the elderly, and veterans who live at or below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines. A2J also maintains a modest means program, which provides legal services at a reduced rate for individuals who do not meet pro bono legal assistance requirements.

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