In order to protect young riders, California has several laws and regulations pertaining to the legal age to drive a motorcycle. They also have several restrictions that limit the age at which a child can ride as a passenger on a motorcycle as well. While some people may think that this is a case of government stepping out of bounds and restricting personal freedom when you consider all the regulations surrounding safety measures for children who ride in automobiles (an objectively much safer mode of transportation) it's easy to see that these rules were created with the child's safety in mind, not blanket restrictions punishing motorcyclists.
It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that motorcycle riding can be dangerous. Not only is the risk of being involved in an accident higher for motorcyclists than automobile operators, the risk of being a serious, debilitating, or even deadly accident is also much higher. But motorcyclists throughout California refuse to let that risk run their lives. Every day thousands of riders take to the streets for commutes, pleasure rides, or quick runs to the corner store.
And people who ride love it. It's no wonder that they feel it's only natural to pass that love of riding on to the next generation. Many people start young, allowing their children to sit on stationary motorcycles, learn how to ride on dirt bikes and minibikes at a relatively young age, and expect that their child will enjoy riding as a passenger behind them when the opportunity arises.
Chances are, many of the current riders in the state learned their love of motorbikes at a young age—perhaps perched on the tank of a bike while in the arms of a father, mother, big sister or brother, uncle, or another family member. But California has strict laws which apply to young children riding on motorcycles on public roadways for their protection.
When is it safe to introduce your child to the exhilaration and freedom that riding brings with it?
It's important that you know and understand the answers to these questions before you ever hit the road. Not only could you be cited for a traffic violation if you let a child ride on the back of your motorcycle, but you could even be charged with a crime and face jail time. And—as the responsible adult—you could be held financially liable for any injuries or long term care if that child is hurt in a motorcycle crash while riding with you.
Note that the majority of this discussion will focus on the laws applicable to street riding – where the California Vehicle Code applies – not dirt bike or off-road riding. Children as young as a few years of age can safely ride off-road with the proper training and equipment—especially on properly designed off-road vehicles.
In California, in order to get a motorcycle operator's license, a person must have:
Therefore, it is unlawful to allow anyone under the age of 16 to operate a motorcycle on streets, roads, or highways in California. That means that if a child under the age of 16 is caught operating a motorcycle on the roadway, they could be detained by the police and charged as a juvenile in the California penal system. Generally, such a violation would result in fines or perhaps the juvenile equivalent of probation. However, if the youth was engaged in another action that compounded the situation (such as the use of drugs and/or alcohol, destruction of private property, or trespassing) the penalties could be more severe.
In addition, as a child's parent or guardian, you could be held responsible in the eyes of the law if your charge is caught unlawfully operating a motorcycle. Technically, this would classify as an unsafe behavior and would fall under the heading of "willful neglect" which could—in extreme cases—result in the child being removed from the home and placed in protective custody.
These restrictions may not apply on privately owned property. Indeed, there may be exceptions for private roads (such as camp roads, roads owned by a road association, individual driveways, etc.) but any private lot "open to the public" (such as at shopping malls) may still fall under the jurisdiction of state traffic laws.
The short answer to that complicated question is no. There are no specific age requirements for passengers on motor-driven cycles anywhere in California state law. That is to say, that no minimum age has been codified in legislation passed by the state of California and signed into law by the governor.
What? There’s no age limit to ride on the back of a motorcycle? Hold your horses - Just because there aren't any laws specifically pertaining to the age of passengers on motorcycles, that doesn't mean that any aged child can legally ride on the back of a motorcycle on our public roadways.
Certain requirements that are codified in California’s motorcycle laws do make carrying certain individuals on the back of a motorcycle illegal. These restrictions are not based on how old a youth is but rather certain physical requirements that are independent of age.
In section 27800 of the California Vehicle Code (CVC) there is a requirement concerning the necessary equipment any motorcycle must have before the rider can hit the road with a passenger on the back of the bike.
Specifically, this piece of legislation requires that all motorcycles:
The seat part just makes common sense but it's the footrest clause that may limit the ability of some young children to ride. If they cannot reach the footrests, it is illegal (or at least unlawful) for that child to ride on the back of the motorcycle even if they're an adolescent or teenager. This law makes measurement the primary determining factor if a child can ride a motorcycle, not age. This restriction is similar to height and weight requirements that are built into California's car seat laws.
So, your child is large enough to reach the footrests on your bike, and ready to ride on the back of your motorcycle for the first time. So far you're doing everything properly, lawfully, and safely. Is there anything more you should be doing? Indeed, studies have shown that helmet use can save lives, decrease the severity of injury, and effectively minimize the financial impact of a motorcycle accident in California.
So, when you think your child is ready to ride, should you provide them with a helmet? Of course!
California's motorcycle helmet law is universal. There are no exceptions. That means every motorcycle operator and passenger must wear approved helmets at all times no matter their age. Indeed that requirement isn't specific to "traditional" motorcycles either. The way the law is written, it applies to a wider variety of vehicles.
Specifically, California Vehicle Code §27803 states that helmets are required for both “a driver” and “any passenger” riding on a “motorcycle”, “motor-driven cycle” or “motorized bicycle”.
This applies to scooters, mopeds, electric bikes that meet certain requirements, and even homemade kit bikes that allow users to operate a two-wheeled vehicle under power.
Additionally, these helmets must meet minimum safety standards set forth in California Vehicle Code §27802. These include:
But it's not just California that has such strict helmet regulations. While not all states in the nation have motorcycle helmet laws, those that do often rely on these standards as they have been adopted by trusted regulatory and testing agencies. Indeed, these helmet requirements are essentially in line with the national Department of Transportation (DOT) requirements for such safety devices.
As mentioned above, these age-related motorcycle laws in California apply only to public roads and "publically accessible" private streets, lots, and throughways. These include some maintained roads in state parks as well as designated off-road trails that intersect or partially utilize publically maintained streets or roads. When it comes to off-road riding of motorcycles, dirt bikes, and other motorized two-wheeled vehicles, things get a little more complicated.
There are multiple regulations that pertain to the acceptable age of riders for designated off-road or recreational vehicles like four-wheelers, side-by-sides, and utility vehicles (most designated as Off-Highway Vehicles or OHV in California) but, curiously, those laws do not apply to motorcycles specifically. However, that doesn't mean that parents can (or should) let young children operate or even ride these machines as passengers. In fact, in certain situations doing so could still be considered unlawful and result in penalties.
But if there are no laws pertaining to the age of motorcycle passengers in off-road situations, how can a parent be held responsible? California's child welfare laws still apply universally—regardless of where the child is. That means that if an individual is caught allowing a child to do something that could be deemed unsafe, they could be charged with negligence and face fines, criminal charges, and even jail time. If the offense is deemed egregious enough, the child could be removed from the home and placed in protective custody.
In most cases, parents wouldn't willingly or knowingly allow their children to do something considered unsafe or unlawful. That's why it's always best to wait until your child meets the legal requirements to ride or operate a motorcycle before allowing them to do so.
When tragedy strikes, the last thing you're concerned about is financial compensation—especially when your child is the one who has been injured. But as your child's medical recovery progresses, it will become clear that standard insurance policies may not be enough to cover all the expenses associated with their injuries. It may become necessary to seek compensation for the motorcycle accident from at fault parties in order to safeguard your family's financial security.
However, providing legal liability after your child has been injured in a motorcycle accident in California can be difficult. California is a comparative negligence state. That means negligence can be assigned in percentages to all parties involved in a motorcycle accident. That's why it's absolutely essential for every motorcycle operator to know, understand, and follow all the rules of the road. In cases where an automobile operator has caused a crash, they (or their insurance company) can be held liable for financial damages.
However, if, as the bike's operator, you allow a child who is either under age or undersized to ride your motorcycle and an accident occurs, you could be held at least partially liable in the eyes of the law.
Learn more about what to do after a serious motorcycle accident crash. It may be necessary to speak with a California motorcycle accident attorney if your child has been injured while riding on the back of a motorcycle in California. Even if it's just to set your mind at ease about the legal recovery process through which you're about to venture.
Not sure where to start? You can get a free online case evaluation by clicking the red button below, or read more on how to find the best motorcycle accident lawyer for your case.