So this piece is geared towards those parents and children living in the sunny, Golden State of California. Every mom and dad have some type of recreational indoor activity or hobby they enjoy besides cooking, cleaning, and (in the age of COVD-19) homeschooling their kids. And with businesses, local parks, and even amusement parks closed, some braver parents are getting creative.

As I was driving back from the store the other day, I noticed bright orange colors on the motorcycle in the distance. As the traffic signals turned yellow, and then red, I was able to catch up to see what all these colors were so far ahead. As I rolled to a stop, I looked over my right shoulder and spied a child straddling the back of a motorcycle in a group of other bikers with kids.

These kids wore helmets and riding gear and looked like they were enjoying themselves. It wasn’t exactly a sunny day, and I noticed those kids were wearing bright orange vests over their leather riding jackets, and they were shivering. Group riding with loud pipes and loud colors is smart because to me, they stuck out like a sore thumb. I noticed them! Aside from being cold, it looked fun. And that got me thinking about the TV show I watched as a small child, CHiPs and sunny California.

I thought to myself, California would be a way better place to ride with kids, than freezing in upstate New York.

Compare New York Child Motorcycle Passenger Riding Laws to California.

Taking all of what I saw in, I couldn’t help but wonder about taking a road trip from New York to Los Angeles to see Venice Beach and the other fun spots, and how fun that would be for a kid. So besides the natural safety concerns I have as a mom, that got me thinking about the law of riding and operation of motorcycles for kids.

After all, with less vehicle traffic and not much else to do with these lockdowns, some parents are thinking about outdoor activities with their little ones. My research indicates that a motorcycle is a human-operated, motorized two-wheeled vehicle. Unlike a bicycle, it is not human-powered. It be can gas, or electricity propelled. But other non-human means of propulsion may also be allowed.

And in most states, Scooters, Vespas, and other bikes with smaller gas engine displacements are generally not allowed on interstates. Most states want a minimum wheel size and 250 engine cubic centimeters (“CC”) size or above for riding on highways. (California law is in accord).

Moving right along, it is legal for a child to ride on the back of a motorcycle in New York. In fact, where I live, there is no age restriction for a child to ride on the back of a bike at all.

Instead, Under Section 1251 of NYS “Vehicle and Traffic Law,” the main concern is:

. . .

  • the motorcycle must be designed to carry more than one person and the passenger must ride on a permanent seat
  • the passenger must face forward, with one leg on each side of the seat
  • the passenger cannot interfere with the operation of the motorcycle or the view of the motorcycle driver
  • the passenger must wear a motorcycle helmet approved by the US Department of Transportation

Let common sense determine if a child is old enough and big enough to ride a motorcycle safely. Also, consider the additional risks faced by motorcycle passengers compared with passengers in a car protected with seat belts or child safety seats. If a child is not large enough to properly wear an approved helmet, then the child cannot legally ride on the motorcycle. If the child cannot place both feet flat on the passenger footpegs of the motorcycles, then it is not safe for the child to ride the motorcycle. (Source).

So in New York, rather than age, a common-sense approach is used. The child must be able to rest their feet on the footpegs of the bike. Stability and footing seem to be the focus here.

Compare California’s Child Motorcycle Riding Rules.

But what about California, is it ok to let a child ride on the back of or even operate motorbikes on city streets, such as in Los Angeles, California? I did a Google search and found all kinds of results, but one I found written by one law firm stood out. So rather than just cite to it, I wanted to learn more from the attorney who wrote it.

The name of the piece is:

Is It Legal For Kids to Be Motorcycle Passengers and Riders?” (Read here). It was written by Los Angeles injury lawyer, Michael Ehline. Ehline is one of a handful of lawyers in California who became a lawyer with no law degree, and he has won millions of dollars for injured people. He is also a father to two kids and is a U.S. Marine veteran who likes to ride motorcycles. He was gracious with his time and gave me his legal and other perspectives below.

California motorcycle lawyer Ehline

Michael Ehline sits at his home desk in Redondo Beach CA, consulting clients on personal injury cases by phone.

My Interview with Motorcycle Attorney Mike Ehline:

Q: Mr. Ehline, can my child ride on the back of a motorcycle with me when I visit California?

A: “Maybe. First, you must have the proper license in your home state. You can’t just rent a motorcycle and hit the streets with a kid on your bike. Taking a motorcycle ride on a beautiful sunny day is one of the finest pleasures in my life. Sharing my life of riding on motorcycles is a joy for me– especially with my family. However, the topic of using a motorcycle for children– even as a passenger– is a tricky legal question.

First, let’s take a look at California law:

California Vehicle Code Section 27800 states:

It is unlawful for a driver of a motorcycle or a motorized bicycle to carry any other person thereon, except on a seat securely fastened to the machine at the rear of the driver and provided with footrests, or in a sidecar attached to a motorcycle and designed for the purpose of carrying a passenger. Every passenger on a bike or a motorized bicycle shall keep his feet on the footrests while such vehicle is in motion.

Right away, you can see that New York and California have similar rules, right?

Q: What age must my child be to ride on the back of my motorcycle in California?

A: “Like New York law, there is no specific age attached to the child motorcycle passenger law. However, there is a clear expectation that a tiny child will not be riding on the back of a Motorbike, or scooter, for example. The passenger must have their feed “securely fastened” to the bike and have footrests. Furthermore, the passenger must keep their feet on the footrests as long as the bike is moving. That clearly cannot be a small child.”

Q: Must children wear helmets in California?

A: “Each minor using the bike– obviously as a passenger– must wear a helmet during the ride. The helmet must be configured to them. That means no adult helmets for them. Furthermore, the helmet must meet the requirements of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard.”

Q: Is there anything else I should know? Can my teen legally operate a motorbike if I want to go off-roading, etc?

A: “1. In certain cases, your child or teen can ride while off-road, under adult supervision; 2. California teen residents, 15 1/2 or older, are allowed to apply for a permit in order to learn how to operate a street motorcycle; 3. Riding with a child in front of you is dangerous, and probably illegal, yet there is not code directly on point.”

Child Passengers on a Motorcycle – A Legal Gray Area?

Attorney Ehline said: “as a biker and a father, this question is especially compelling for me. I wouldn’t do anything that endangers my kids. In looking closer at the law, there are several workarounds that dumb parents could take to defeat the spirit of the law. These include using a special flattened motorcycle seat with footrests secured higher up on the motorcycle frame.

That way a small kid or one with short legs can reach the pedal pegs. In some cases, it may be safe, in other cases, it may be reckless. So use common sense and don’t try and skirt the underpinnings of the law. After all, riding motorcycles is far more dangerous than riding in a passenger car.

Other than that, there are specially designed helmets for minors, so don’t use a top-heavy adult helmet. Each of these meets the letter of the law. Furthermore, under California’s legal liability laws, it reduces the risk for parents and adults in case of accidents with a child on the back of the bike.”

I appreciate attorney Ehline taking the time to discuss the law of child motorcycle riding in California. In closing, the most important question for me is: is it safe?

For young children, the answer is often no. To recap, the risk of accident and serious injury on a bike is much higher than in a car. For a child above the age of 12 or 13, the answer often correlates with the riding experience of their parent or guardian. In these cases, I would consider your deftness on the bike and their ability to follow safety procedures and the law. So the take away for me is that common sense happy riding!