If you’re a motorcyclist or someone who is planning to ride a motorcycle in North Carolina, you may have wondered, “What exactly are the motorcycle laws in North Carolina?” While most of the same traffic laws that apply to other motor vehicles also apply to motorcycles, motorcyclists have several unique privileges and restrictions. These vary from state to state to some degree.

At Ward Black Law, our injury attorneys have worked with thousands of accident victims in Greensboro and throughout North Carolina. We understand how devastating a preventable accident can be for motorcycle riders and their families. 

To help protect and inform our motorcyclist neighbors, we present the following summary of North Carolina’s most important motorcycle law.

Do you have to wear a motorcycle helmet in North Carolina?

North Carolina requires all motorcycle riders, including drivers and passengers, to wear helmets at all times on the road. This requirement applies to moped riders and passengers as well. 

Helmets must be properly secured with a retention strap and comply with the following criteria outlined in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) number 218:

  • An inner lining of protective foam at least one inch thick
  • A manufacturer-supplied Department of Transportation (DOT) sticker
  • A manufacturer-supplied manufacturing label, which should state the manufacturer’s name or ID, the helmet size, manufacturing date, shell type, construction material types, and exact helmet model
  • A manufacturer-supplied label with helmet care and cleaning instructions

Any motorcyclists or passengers who ride with a non-compliant helmet, such as a novelty helmet, or no helmet at all, could be found guilty of legal infractions. The consequences of neglecting to wear a compliant helmet could include fines and related court costs, not to mention potentially serious injuries from motor vehicle accidents.

What special traffic laws apply to motorcycles?

For the most part, motorcycles are subject to the same traffic laws as any other motor vehicle on North Carolina roads. Motorcyclists are required to indicate their turns, observe speed limits, traffic obey signals, and follow right-of-way rules like other drivers.

Several unique rules also apply specifically to motorcycle and moped riders, such as:

  • Passenger restrictions – These rules prohibit motorcycles and mopeds from carrying more passengers than they are designed to accommodate. North Carolina law does not, however, impose a minimum age restriction on motorcycle passengers.
  • Lane use privileges – Like other drivers, motorcycle riders are entitled to the full use of any lanes in which they are driving and are prohibited from driving in a way that deprives other motorcyclists of the full use of a lane. Motorcycle riders may operate two abreast in a single lane if they so choose.
  • HOV lane use rights – Motorcycles carrying two or more passengers have the right to use high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes to relieve congestion during heavy traffic conditions.
  • Red light rules – Motorcyclists are permitted to proceed through red lights at traffic intersections under certain circumstances. If a motorcycle approaches a traffic light controlled by an inductive loop detector, which is a type of sensor that detects passing vehicles but often has trouble recognizing motorcycles, they may proceed through a solid red light as long as:
    • They come to a complete stop and wait at least three minutes for the red traffic light to change.
    • No other vehicle entitled to the right-of-way is stopped at, traveling through, or approaching the intersection.
    • No pedestrians are attempting to cross through or near the intersection.

Is lane-splitting legal in North Carolina?

Lane-splitting is a controversial practice subject to a varied patchwork of laws and restrictions throughout the United States. Lane-splitting involves a motorcyclist riding between two lanes of traffic traveling in the same direction. 

Some believe motorcycle riders who engage in lane-splitting are reckless thrill-seekers trying to race through traffic, but the truth is that many motorcyclists who lane-split do so for safety reasons. 

Lane-splitting means fewer vehicles clog up lanes of traffic in congested areas and make motorcycle riders less likely to be rear-ended by other drivers. Even low-speed collisions can seriously or fatally injure motorcyclists with larger motor vehicles, so many riders understandably take precautions to avoid rear-end crashes with distracted drivers in rush hour traffic scenarios.

Despite the arguable advantages to lane-splitting, the practice’s legality is questionable in North Carolina. The state has no laws specifically permitting or outlawing lane-splitting. However, motorcyclists who lane-split may face charges under broader motorcycle safety laws.

Do you need a special license to drive a motorcycle in North Carolina?

Drivers who wish to operate their motorcycles legally have to obtain special permits and endorsements. Motorcyclists may apply for a motorcycle learner permit with the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) if they already hold a provisional, standard, or commercial driver’s license. Drivers must pass a motorcycle knowledge test, road sign identification test, and vision exam during the permit application process. 

Motorcycle riders 18 years of age or younger must provide proof of parental or guardian consent and must pass an approved motorcycle safety course to obtain a learner’s permit. Permits are valid for 12 months and may only be renewed once for an additional six-month period. Riders with motorcycle learner permits are prohibited from carrying passengers.

Motorcyclists who wish to apply for a motorcycle endorsement must hold a fully-provisioned regular or commercial driver’s license. To obtain the necessary endorsement, drivers must pass a motorcycle knowledge test and a practical, off-street motorcycle skills test. 

North Carolina drivers are not required to hold either a driver’s license or a motorcycle endorsement to operate mopeds. However, moped operators must be at least 16 years of age and observe applicable helmet laws.

What sort of equipment must a motorcycle have?

To prevent accidents and save lives, North Carolina imposes specific minimum standards on the safety equipment required for motorcycle owners and operators. To be considered “street legal,” North Carolina motorcycles must have:

  • A license plate visible from approximately 50 feet away, day or night. This typically means that a light source must illuminate license plates.
  • A headlight bright enough to shine approximately 200 feet ahead, day or night.
  • A red or amber taillight visible from approximately 500 feet away, day or night.
  • A rear brake light that can be seen from around 100 feet away, day or night. Brake lights may be operated by hand or foot.
  • A functioning horn loud enough to be heard from approximately 200 feet away
  • A foot peg or footrest, if drivers intend to carry any passengers.
  • At least one rearview mirror must provide operators with a clear and unobstructed view of at least 2,000 feet behind their motorcycles.
  • An exhaust system in working order must be in constant operation to prevent annoying smoke screens or excessive noise, though North Carolina has no maximum decibel levels. Muffler “cut-outs” are prohibited for all vehicles.
  • A speedometer to gauge speed.

The following safety equipment is also recommended for motorcyclists, although none of these items are required by North Carolina law:

  • Goggles or other face shields
  • Sturdy riding boots
  • Thick motorcycle gloves
  • Leather or synthetic motorcycle jackets
  • Thick motorcycle pants or jeans

What are the rules for registering and insuring a motorcycle?

Motorcycles must be registered and insured in North Carolina like any other vehicle. Motorcycle registrations typically take seven days and may only be completed in person at official vehicle and license plate renewal locations in the state. 

The registration process requires specific fees and several relevant documents, such as:

  • Your driver’s license and proof of liability insurance
  • A release from the motorcycle’s lienholder, if applicable
  • An odometer statement for vehicles less than 10 years old
  • A damage disclosure statement, if purchased from a dealer

Motorcycles must be re-registered every year, and riders must carry minimum amounts of basic liability insurance to cover any damages that may result from potential accidents. These minimums include:

  • $30,000 in single-person injury coverage
  • $60,000 in injury coverage for two or more persons
  • $25,000 in property damage coverage

Must motorcycles pass state inspection in North Carolina?

Yes, all motor vehicles, including motorcycles, are required to pass annual safety inspections before owners can complete their yearly registration renewals. Licensed mechanics inspect the following components during state inspections:

  • Headlights, accessory lights, and directional signals
  • Tires and brakes
  • Steering mechanisms and horn
  • Rearview mirrors
  • Exhaust systems

Even safe and careful motorcycle drivers who comply with all of the above laws and recommendations may still become involved in collisions through the negligence of other drivers. 

If you were hurt in a North Carolina motorcycle accident, it’s vital to seek legal representation as soon as possible. To reach the experienced motorcycle accident attorneys of Ward Black Law for a free consultation, call us, text us, or contact us online today.