State Motor Vehicle Laws

A Common Structure

Over most of the twentieth century a non-profit membership organization worked to bring a measure of consistency, along with a sharing of “best practices,” to the state-based quilt of motor vehicle and traffic laws.  It did so through the publication and periodic revision of a Uniform Vehicle Code (U.V.C.).  Like other “uniform” state laws this one merely offered a model, a set of provisions recommended to state legislatures for their consideration.  Over the years it was maintained, the U.V.C. both drew upon and influenced the codes of individual states.  For all their differences, the structure of nearly all state vehicle and traffic laws and many of their core provisions can be mapped onto some version of that model.

The original U.V.C. was prepared in response to a 1924 national conference convened by then Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, and approved by a successor conference two years later.   Burgeoning use of the automobile was the catalyst.  Throughout the balance of the twentieth century, a non-profit membership organization, the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances (NCUTLO), carried the project forward, issuing occasional revisions of the recommended code and publishing annotated versions that arrayed state vehicle laws against its framework.

In 2000, following publication of a “millennium edition,” of the U.V.C., NCUTLO ceased operations.  (Unless another version is indicated all references at this site to the U.V.C. are to that 2000 edition.)  In the years since, the very years during which a growing and diverse population of wheeled, electrically powered mobility devices have sought room on the nation’s roadways, sidewalks, and bicycle paths, the states and their municipalities have largely been left to address the terms and conditions of their use individually.   The only forces pressing for a common approach have been lobbying efforts by focused commercial interests, each promoting the use of a particular type of battery-powered device.

The Key Terms and Their Consequences

The state codes that those micromobility devices confronted consisted of a set of set of definitions and regulatory provisions that prescribed: 

  • who could operate,
  • what kind of device,
  • where (if at all) on public ways, and
  • on what conditions.

Under the influence of the Uniform Vehicle Code (U.V.C.) state codes divided roadway and sidewalk users into two principal categories: those operating “vehicles” and “pedestrians.”  “Motor vehicles” were a defined subclass of vehicle: namely, those that were self-propelled.  Motor vehicles were subject to requirements that did not apply to vehicles propelled solely by muscular power (animal or human).  With narrow exceptions, motor vehicles driven along public roads had to be registered with a state agency and in order to be registered had to meet a range of requirements.  These included compliance with numerous equipment standards (pertaining to brakes, headlights, tail lights, brake lights, and so on) and, in many states, the owner’s possession of liability insurance covering future harm caused to third parties.  Those operating a motor vehicle on public roads had to be licensed by a state agency, which screened prospective licensees for knowledge of the jurisdiction’s traffic laws, for adequate vision, and for demonstrated competence in operating motor vehicles of the type covered by the license.  Non-motor vehicles using public roads were also regulated but, except in rare cases, they did not need to be registered nor did their operators need to be licensed.  In addition, they could be taken on public roadways without insurance. 

State codes divided streets, roads, and highways into two distinct portions: roadway and sidewalk.  Travelers fell into two principal categories: those using “vehicles” (for which the roadway was intended) and “pedestrians” (required to use a sidewalk where there was one or when crossing the roadway).  “Motor vehicles” were a defined subclass of vehicle: namely, vehicles that were self-propelled.  Motor vehicles were subject to requirements that did not apply to vehicles propelled solely by muscular power (animal or human).  Motor vehicles driven on public roads had to be registered with a state agency, and to be registered they had to meet a range of requirements.  These included compliance with numerous equipment standards (pertaining to brakes, headlights, tail lights, brake lights, and so on) and, in many states, the owner’s possession of liability insurance covering future harm caused to third parties.  Those operating a motor vehicle on public roads had to be licensed by a state agency.  The licensing process screened prospective motor vehicle operators for knowledge of the jurisdiction’s traffic laws, for adequate vision, and for demonstrated competence in operating motor vehicles of the type covered by the license. Non-motor vehicles using public roads were also regulated but, except in rare cases, they did not have to be registered nor did their operators require a license.  In addition, non-motor vehicles could be taken on public roadways without insurance.  Furthermore, motor vehicles in huge variety - from construction equipment to lawn mowers - and their operators were not subject to these requirements so long as they remained on private land.

Critical to this structure were the statutory definitions of "vehicle," “motor vehicle,” and "pedestrian."  A threshold problem confronting micromobility devices and their users was that the devices fell within the "motor vehicle" category.  At the beginning of the twenty-first century, most state definitions closely tracked the Uniform Vehicle Code provisions.  They read as follows:

U.V.C. § 1-215-Vehicle - Every device in, upon or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a highway, excepting devices used exclusively upon stationary rails or tracks.

U.V.C. § 1-156-Motor vehicle - Every vehicle which is self-propelled, and every vehicle which is propelled by electric power obtained from overhead trolley wires but not operated upon rails, except vehicles moved solely by human power and motorized wheelchairs.

As motor vehicles, powered personal mobility devices could not lawfully be used to travel along public sidewalks.  Nor was the roadway an option because, while they were "motor vehicles," they didn't fall into any of the classes that could be registered, and issued plates necessary for such use.

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

To take a lawn tractor on a road trip along state highways (as the late Alvin Straight did across stretches of Iowa and Wisconsin in a trip memorialized in the David Lynch film "The Straight Story") is to operate an unregistered “motor vehicle” unlawfully. See U.V.C. § 3-701.  Nor can that legal result be avoided by registering the vehicle unless the tractor meets all the motor vehicle equipment requirements set out in state law.  Beyond those specific requirements, most state motor vehicle departments have broad authority to refuse to register any vehicle deemed to be "unsafe to be operated or moved upon the highway." See U.V.C. § 3-408(b).  (Driving a tractor or mower across the road to get from one field or yard to another is, typically, exempted from these requirements. See U.V.C. § 3-402(b

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, a possibly significant although 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.

Operating Bicycles and Other Conveyances Lacking a Motor on Public Roads and Sidewalks

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.  In addition, bicycles and other "vehicle[s] moved exclusively by human power" can, in most states, be operated on a sidewalk.  See U.V.C. § 11-1103.

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 lane 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.

Pedestrians

Most state vehicle codes started out defining "pedestrian" simply as "any person afoot."  See U.V.C. § 1-168.  Attention to the needs of those using wheelchairs and other mobility assistance devices, including those powered by electricity led many legislatures, although not all, to make changes that can be viewed as precursors of later micromobility amendments.

Authority Granted to Local Governments

Most twentieth century vehicle codes typically gave local units of government considerable room to impose speed limits, regulate traffic and parking, and generally apply the state regulations to the jurisdiction.  U.V.C. § 15-102.  This was within a framework requiring that state rules should apply uniformly throughout the state. U.V.C. § 15-101. Authority over state (and in some states, county) highways was more severely curtailed. U.V.C. § 15-105.  Specific authority to create local variations were frequently granted with respect to the regulation of a range of toy vehicles  U.V.C. § 15-102.  In some states, bicycles were on that list.

Current Definitions and Key Provisions of Individual States

Links to the motor vehicle codes of the 50 states