San Francisco Bay Area

130- Motorcyclist’s Legal Boot Camp

Riding a motorcycle is different than driving a car or SUV. Motorcycle legal issues are equally distinct from those of other vehicles. Here is a quick and dirty guide:

License requirements

Pass a test, drive a car. If you are over 21, pass a motorcycle driving test, or take a certified safety course, and you can get a motorcycle endorsement on your driver’s license. If you are under 21, you must take the motorcycle rider training course and hold a permit for six months. Either way, you also have to pass the written motorcycle rider’s test, which is best done after studying the DMV Motorcycle Operator’s handbook.

You can get a motorcycle license starting at age 16. Once you have the endorsement, you keep it. There is currently no repeat testing or training requirement.

Moto U advocates taking the written test and then riding legally on a learner's permit until you are able to pass the riding test at the DMV A learner's permit is available to anyone over 21 who passes the written test at the DMV. A learner's permit allows you to ride immediately, but a rider may not ride at night, on freeways, or with passengers until they pass the riding test at the DMV and get a full motorcycle M1 endorsement on their licence.

The riding test is nearly impossible to pass for a beginner with 8-10 hours or parking lot riding. That's exactly why the certified safety courses that excuse a rider from taking the DMV test are not the best way to go in our opinion. Start out slow, build experience, and get yourself tested by a neutral third party to prove to the state and yourself that you're ready for a full motorcycle endorsement on your licence.

The DMV riding test is challenging to a new rider for a reason - a rider should have a minimum skill level before progressing on to riding with passengers, at night, or on freeways.

Video Examples of the DMV riding test can be seen here.


You’re required to wear a DOT-approved helmet in those states, including California, that require you and your passenger to wear one. Snell or other certification is optional. A full face helmet, while optional, is smart. If you don’t believe me, see what images you can pull up online of post accident faces for riders without full face helmets.


Here’s where riders make very dumb choices. You are required to meet the minimum liability insurance coverage requirements, which means you must have $15,000 for one person that you injure in an accident, with a total of $30,000 for everyone you injure in any one accident.

But look, if you are unlucky enough to pick off a pedestrian, you would need to be really lucky if all they sued for was $15,000. Higher limits don’t cost much more money. And while you’re at it, get a lot of Uninsured Motorist, or UM coverage. This is the part of the policy that pays for your own injuries when some dim bulb makes a left hand turn in front of you, and you hit the side of a truck. If the perp only has minimum coverage, the UM coverage will act as UIM, or under-insured motorist coverage. This acts as additional coverage for the perp to pay you over the defendant’s coverage. For example, if you are cut off by an SUV with $15,000 in coverage, and you have $100,000 in UM on your policy, your policy will add another $85,000 ($100,000 less credit for the $15,000) to what you have available.

UM coverage is the only coverage the law considers so important, that if you don’t want it, you have to waive it in writing. Unfortunately, dealers and many low rent insurance agents routinely put the waiver in the policy application. So do many so-called “motorcycle insurance” carriers.

Take this one on faith. Lots of UM coverage is a heck of a lot more likely to benefit you than a new exhaust pipe. Bad drivers have a tendency to also have no coverage, or not much. UM is how you protect yourself from them.

Loud Pipes

Here comes the screaming match. Look, lots of riders love their loud pipes. Non-riders hate loud exhausts. Not all of them get tickets. There are definite rules limiting exhaust noise. More recently, these have tightened up.

The factory exhaust is always safe from a legal standpoint. After that, you’re on your own. It’s an easy ticket if a cop is looking for something.


Okay, this is the big one. Typically, the other driver makes a left in front of you, but sometimes they pull into your space from the side, or even hit you from behind.

Chances are, this is going to hurt you a lot more than it will hurt them.

Before we go any further, re-read the “insurance” section. In California, you do not get any compensation for the misery and pain caused by being injured in an accident if you do not have insurance on your motorcycle. You can still get your out-of-pocket losses, like damage to the bike, lost wages, and medical bills, but you have to eat it on your fractured arm or leg, and too bad you sat at home watching soap operas for a month.

There are two separate parts here: Getting your bike fixed, and getting paid for your own injuries.

The bike depends on documenting either the cost of repair, or the value of a bike that is too damaged to repair (a “total”). In addition to the cost of repair, you are entitled to be paid for “loss of use” of the bike, from the time of the accident until it can be repaired or replaced. If it is totaled, you should also get paid for tax and license that will be needed for a replacement. “Loss of use” is determined with respect to what it would cost to rent a similar motorcycle.

Amazingly, it is much easier to settle a property damage claim than it is to settle an injury claim. Most of the time, it can be done without a lawyer.

Don’t forget your helmet and gear, and whatever else of yours that was damaged in the accident.

Personal injuries normally require the skill of an attorney. You are way better off with a lawyer who rides regularly, and handles these cases with frequency. Don’t mess up your case by trying to do it yourself before you get one of the few lawyers who specialize in motorcycle accident cases. As Chevy Chase would say, “I’m a motorcycle attorney, and you’re not”.

The mechanics of reconstructing a motorcycle accident are beyond the knowledge base of even experienced personal injury attorneys who don’t ride and handle these cases regularly. You will have a far better experience if you start out with the right lawyer.

Virtually every lawyer handling these cases does not charge anything until the end of the case, at which point they take a percentage. The percentage is usually a third of any settlement if the case settles without too much litigation, and 40% thereafter. Plan on 40% if your injuries are at all significant, unless the driver who caused the accident has a small insurance policy. [Re-read “insurance”, above]. Small policy limits can lead to faster, but very inadequate, settlements.

You can switch lawyers any time. If you aren’t happy with your lawyer early in the case, don’t expect to be happy in the end. You will pay a big fee, so you are entitled to have your phone calls and your questions answered. An attorney too busy to talk to you has at least one too many clients—you.

By the way, any decent motorcycle lawyer will answer a reasonable number of questions on the phone—for free.