Motor Vehicle Laws

What can be operated on public highways, city streets, sidewalks, and bike paths throughout the United States, as well as the terms and conditions, are, in the United States, governed by state, not federal law.  All fifty states have codes or compiled statutes regulating these subjects. 

The standard pattern of these state laws rests on a broad definition of “motor vehicle” followed by carefully crafted exceptions.  New York’s statute is typical.  Its definition of “motor vehicle” embraces “Every vehicle operated or driven upon a public highway which is propelled by any power other than muscular power….” N.Y. Veh. & Traf. Law § 125.  Unless a statutory exception applies (New York’s definition proceeds to exclude “farm type tractors and all terrain type vehicles used exclusively for agricultural purposes,” for example) a set of requirements apply.  The standard package includes registration and the display of license plates, liability insurance (“financial responsibility”), and the requirement that the vehicle be operated by a licensed driver.  These requirements are often scaled according to the size of the vehicle (truck, car, motorcycle), but for "motor vehicles" not excepted they limited what could be driven on public highways, roads, and streets. N.Y. Veh. & Traf. § 401 ("No motor vehicle shall be operated or driven upon the public highways of this state without first being registered in accordance with the provisions of this article ....") Prior to the recent introduction of battery-powered electrical bicycles and scooters, the spectrum of motor vehicles allowed on state highways and city streets ended with mopeds (originally bicycles with a small gasoline engine attached).  See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-4.01(27j).

In addition, only persons holding a valid state-issued driver’s license are authorized to operate motor vehicles on public highways or streets. See, e.g., Kan. Stat. § 8-235.

Operating Bicycles and Other Conveyances Lacking a Motor on Public Roads

Historically, state laws, allowed certain people and vehicles propelled by “muscular power” onto public roads, notably pedestrians, horses and horse-drawn vehicles and bicycles, laying down restrictions and requirements appropriate to their slower speeds. 

North Dakota’s provisions governing bicycles are typical in beginning with the general rule that:

Every person riding a bicycle upon a roadway is granted all of the rights and is subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle by this title, except as to special regulations in this title and except as to those provisions of this title which by their nature can have no application.

N.D. Cent. Code § 39-10.1-02.

Must, if not all, criminal and traffic violation penalties apply to cyclists.  See, e.g., N.D. Cent. Code § 39-10.1-08.

Subsequent provisions are likely to impose such requirements as:

  • that a bicycle not be ridden by more persons than it was designed for,
  • that riders not attach themselves to another vehicle, and
  • that they ride as close to the right side of the road or in a bicycle and not more than two abreast.  

See, e.g., N.D. Cent. Code §§ 39-10.1-03, 39-10.1.-04, 39-10.1.-05.

The recent advent of e-bicycles (individually owned, shared using docking stations, and dockless) has prompted a growing number of states to adopt some version of model legislation proposed by PeopleForBikes and the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association which effectively equates powered bicycles in which the motor assists pedaling without displacing its necessity with conventional ones, thereby excluding such e-bicycles from the “motor vehicle” category and requirements.  As defined by this model legislation, which requires “fully operable pedals,” the change does not extend to e-scooters.

Operating a Vehicle Where it Is not “Street-Legal”

The possible negative consequences of operating a motor vehicle on a public road of a type that state law does not allow include: a fine imposed on the operator (to the extent that state or local law enforcement agencies enforce the ban), confiscation of the vehicle, an indeterminate impact on any liability assessment or recovery in the event of an accident, and lack of coverage under such liability insurance as the operator may have.