Tennessee Motorcycle Laws Staff Profile Picture
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Operating a motorcycle puts a rider in an unusually vulnerable position. Even a safe motorcyclist can suffer severe injuries due to dangerous street conditions or the negligent behavior of other drivers. The number of motorcycle accidents in Tennessee decreased only slightly from 3,119 in 2016 to 2,928 in 2022, indicating a continued high rate of accidents. In fact, annual motorcycle crashes have gradually increased since 2018. Many of these accidents result in suspected serious or minor injuries, despite the fact that most motorcyclists were adhering to the speed limit at the time of the accident. Some of the most dangerous corridors in the state for traffic accidents include Hacks Cross Road and the interchange between I-24 and I-40.

Here you can learn about Tennessee’s traffic laws that concern motorcycles and important information for pursuing a claim, including the statute of limitations and damage caps. Finally, you will find links to other valuable resources.

Tennessee Motorcycle Headlight Law

In Tennessee, motorcycles must always have their headlights on, regardless of the time of day. Motorcycles can have a maximum of two front-facing headlamps, and the lights cannot flash. However, modulating headlights are allowed. A headlamp cannot shine any color other than those between white and amber on the spectrum.

Exceptions to these laws include emergency vehicles, which are permitted to have red, white, and blue lights, and motorcycles that act as funeral escorts, which can have flashing green lights.

Violation of the headlight law is a Class C misdemeanor, which can be punished by a fine of up to $50 or a jail stay of up to 30 days, or both. Someone operating a motorcycle without headlights could also have three points added to their license.

Tennessee Motorcycle Helmet Law

Tennessee requires every motorcycle driver and passenger to wear a helmet that meets the safety standards of the United States Department of Transportation. As with the laws regulating motorcycle headlamps, failure to wear a helmet or failure to ensure that passengers are wearing helmets can result in a Class C misdemeanor.

There are several exceptions to Tennessee’s motorcycle helmet requirements. After the passing of Senate Bill 1536 in 2021, drivers and passengers aged 26 or older can now ride without a helmet if they have proper insurance coverage. Additionally, motorcyclists aged 21 or older leading a funeral procession can go without a helmet if they travel fewer than 50 miles and maintain a speed of 30 mph or slower.

Violating the motorcycle helmet law is a secondary offense, meaning a police officer cannot pull a motorcyclist over simply for not wearing a helmet. However, a motorcyclist without a helmet who is pulled over for another reason can receive an additional citation.

Tennessee Motorcycle Passenger Law

Tennessee Motorcyclists who wish to ride with a passenger can only do so under certain circumstances. A rider can only carry a passenger if their vehicle was designed to hold two riders. Both driver and passenger have to sit on a permanent seat, and the passenger cannot obstruct the driver’s view. Children cannot be passengers on a motorcycle unless they either keep their feet on footpegs or travel in a sidecar.

Each motorcycle passenger is required to wear a helmet that meets the U.S. Department of Transportation’s standards. The only exception to this rule is that a passenger who is 18 or older may forego a helmet if the motorcycle is traveling under 30 mph as part of a parade.

Similar to other offenses, violating the passenger law is a Class C misdemeanor, carrying a fine of no more than $50 or a jail sentence of no more than 30 days. Illegally traveling with a child passenger will lead to a $50 fine, $40 of which will go to a children’s safety fund.

Tennessee Lane Splitting Law

Riding a motorcycle between demarcated lanes, also known as “lane splitting,” is illegal in Tennessee. Many motorcyclists split lanes to avoid traffic. Its legality varies from state to state. Several states lack laws addressing lane splitting altogether, leading some motorcyclists to think it is legal. However, Tennessee law explicitly states that motorcyclists cannot “overtake and pass in the same lane occupied by the vehicle being overtaken” or “operate a motorcycle between lanes of traffic or between adjacent lines or rows of vehicles.”

The only exception to Tennessee’s lane-splitting law applies to police officers, who are permitted to split lanes when carrying out their job responsibilities. Otherwise, lane splitting, like most other traffic violations, is a Class C misdemeanor.

Anyone who witnesses lane splitting, or any other unsafe driving behavior, can report it to the Tennessee Highway Patrol at any hour by calling *THP.

Sharing the Road With Motorcycles in Tennessee

Tennessee law states that motorcycles have the right to occupy the full width of a lane, just as cars and trucks do. Anyone who tries to drive a car or truck abreast of a motorcycle in the same lane violates that right and can be held legally accountable. A vehicle must entirely change lanes in order to pass a motorcycle. 

Motorcycles themselves are exempt from this rule. However, no more than two motorcyclists may ride abreast in the same lane.

Like other traffic laws, failure to allow a motorcycle the entire width of a lane is a Class C misdemeanor. Someone who witnesses a car trying to drive alongside a motorcycle can report it by calling the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

Safe Following Distance in Tennessee

All drivers, regardless of vehicle, must observe a safe following distance. Tennessee does not define a safe following distance specifically, stating that drivers should not travel more closely behind other vehicles “than is reasonable and prudent.” 

A common rule of thumb for determining safe following distance is the three-second rule: a driver should allow three seconds’ worth of space between themselves and the car in front of them. Because motorcycles are more vulnerable and can come to a stop more suddenly than cars, drivers should maintain four seconds of distance when following one.

As with other traffic violations, maintaining an unsafe following distance is a Class C misdemeanor.

Tennessee Motorcycle Insurance Requirements

In Tennessee, all drivers, including motorcycle owners, must subscribe to insurance that covers, at minimum, $25,000 per person injured or killed in an accident, $50,000 total injuries in an accident, and $25,000 for property damaged in an accident. The minimum requirement for property damage coverage was increased from $15,000 in 2022.

Driving without insurance is a class C misdemeanor with a fine of up to $300. An uninsured driver will also have their license suspended until they can provide proof of insurance, and their vehicle may be towed.

Motorcyclists may want to consider insurance beyond the minimal requirements. Collision insurance can provide motorcyclists with coverage for damage to their vehicle, regardless of whether or not they were at fault. Uninsured motorist coverage can protect a driver who was injured or whose vehicle was damaged by someone illegally driving without liability coverage. Medical payment coverage can help drivers pay for their and their passengers’ hospital bills after an accident. Comprehensive coverage offers protection from theft, something that motorcycles are particularly at risk of.

As an alternative to minimum insurance requirements, motorcyclists in Tennessee can provide evidence of financial responsibility by posting a $65,000 bond with the Department of Revenue. This bond demonstrates that they have the financial means to pay for bodily injury and property damage out of pocket after an accident. However, as these costs can be considerable, subscribing to liability insurance is a safer option.

How Much Can Someone Sue For a Motorcycle Accident in Tennessee?

Tennessee does not limit economic damages for a personal injury claim. Someone injured in a motorcycle accident without being at fault can see full compensation for any medical expenses, property damage, and lost wages that they incurred as a result of their injuries.

However, Tennessee limits non-economic damages in any civil claim to $750,000. Non-economic damages include compensation for pain and suffering and wrongful death. This limit applies to each injury rather than to each event that caused that injury. If a motorcyclist is suing multiple drivers for their role in an accident, their non-economic damages for the injuries they suffered in that accident still cannot exceed $750,000 total.

If a court defines a plaintiff’s injuries as “catastrophic,” they may receive up to $1,000,000 in non-economic damages. An injury is catastrophic if it results in paralysis, loss of a limb, death of a parent of a minor, or extensive third-degree burns.

The Statute of Limitations in Tennessee

Tennessee has separate statutes of limitations for the various types of civil action the motorcycle accident victim might pursue.

The statute of limitations for personal injury or wrongful death is one year. This includes a discovery rule, meaning that someone who realizes they suffered an injury in an accident has one year from the date of discovery, not the date of the accident, to file damages. However, a court can determine the date of discovery as the date by which a reasonable person would have realized the cause of their injury, even if that is earlier than the actual date.

If the defendant in a personal injury claim is brought up on criminal charges, the statute of limitations is extended to two years. A motorcyclist whose vehicle was damaged in an accident will have three years from the date of the accident to file a lawsuit for property damage.

It is important to pursue action over a motorcycle accident long before the statute of limitations expires. Insurance companies may throw out claims they receive too long after an accident, even if those claims are made well within the statute of limitations. Additionally, the statute of limitations is for a lawsuit, which claimants typically only file months into their legal process. Many personal injury and property damage claims are settled out of court, with a lawsuit as a last resort. A claimant who waits too long to begin civil action might find themselves still in negotiation with the defendant after the statute of limitations expires. After that point they will have no way to receive compensation for their financial and non-economic losses.

Is Tennessee a no-fault state?

Tennessee is not a no-fault state. In every auto accident, each party will be assigned a portion of fault.

Tennessee considers comparative negligence in motorcycle accidents, meaning each party involved in an accident can bear partial responsibility. A plaintiff can only recover damages after an accident if they are less than 50% responsible.

Tennessee has a modified comparative negligence statute, meaning that a claimant’s damages will be reduced in proportion to their portion of fault. For example, if a motorcyclist is 30% responsible for an accident, their damages will be reduced by 30%.

Legal Resources for Tennessee Motorcycle Accident Victims

A motorcycle accident is stressful in a number of ways. In addition to your immediate health concerns, you will have to worry about filing a crash report and looking for an attorney to help you claim damages. Additionally, you might experience anxiety about getting back in the saddle. The following resources will help you take care of your clerical responsibilities after an accident, search for legal help, and renew your confidence in riding safely.

Tennessee Motorcycle Operation Manual

Tennessee provides a downloadable handbook for motorcyclists. This guide contains information on motorcycle laws, the rights of motorcyclists, and advice for safely riding a motorcycle. There are detailed instructions on how to safely perform various maneuvers with accompanying illustrations, and an extensive safety checklist for inspecting your bike before a ride.


Tennessee Lawyer Referral Services

The Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility maintains a list of lawyer referral services serving different areas of the state. Someone thinking about finding professional legal counsel but doesn’t know where to start may find these services helpful. The referral services allow you to search for attorneys by practice area and easily schedule a consultation. The BPR also has a list of low-income referral services for those concerned about the financial implications of hiring an attorney.


Motorcycle Rider Education Program

Motorcyclists can enroll in a Motorcycle Rider Education Program sponsored by the Tennessee Department of Safety. These classes, taught by instructors certified by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, educate motorcyclists on techniques for safe motorcycle operation and provide an environment to practice on a state-owned bike. There are introductory courses for beginning riders and advanced courses for more experienced riders. Completing a course can reduce your insurance premiums, and some motorcycle manufacturers will pay for a course on the customer’s behalf. The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security also allows Class M license applicants to complete an MREP program in place of a road test.


Tennessee Driver Services Website

Tennessee’s Driver Services website lets users easily access several resources related to vehicle ownership. Visitors can pay fees, renew their registration, and order a replacement license. Anyone who needs to visit a driver’s license office in person can schedule an appointment ahead of time online rather than having to wait in person. Users can take practice driver’s license exams and educate themselves on the process of obtaining a Class M license. Someone recently involved in an accident can download a crash report, but they will have to send it by mail.


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