Laws Regarding Bike Racks on Cars

Laws Regarding Bike Racks on Cars

While many people think of bikes as something that is used in lieu of driving a car, the reality is that most cyclists are not just taking their bike around town; their bikes also come with them when they travel any distances.

For example, if you’re looking at doing some mountain biking, it’s likely that you will be driving to the trails and then hitting them on your bike.

In order to safely transport your bike or bikes, you will likely be mounting the bike on a bike rack on your car, van or truck and then heading out.

But cyclists have been hit with penalties and tickets for having their bike incorrectly mounted on a rack or because the rack they were using was not a good fit for the car, often causing a visibility issue wherein the license plate cannot be seen.

So, if you want to avoid being pulled over and you want to make sure that your bikes are kept safe, what should you know about laws regarding bike racks on cars?

Common Issues With Bike Racks

Before looking at some of the more specific state laws, it’s important to understand where people can just plain go wrong when it comes to their bike racks.

Proper use of a bike rack is critical as a bike that is not racked properly can cause injury or damage to others if it comes loose while on the road.

Some people carrying their bike right in their vehicle, but this is rarely practical, and you may have to pull the bike apart first and you will still want to restrain it.

There are a couple of different racks you may want to use to carry your bike on the vehicle rather than inside of it. The common ones are roof racks and rear racks.

Roof racks must be carefully shopped for and they must be designed for the purpose of carrying bikes (as opposed to kayaks or canoes for example). Racks can be fitted and made to attach to roof rails on station wagons and SUVs or you can have them fitted to other cars by professionals.

Racks can carry a bike upright or upside down; some racks allow the bike to remain intact while others may require you to remove a front wheel.

Roof racks are beneficial because they don’t generally block license plates or taillights. On the other hand, you’ll want to keep in mind the effect they have when you are driving in windy conditions and don’t forget to take them into account when driving into areas with restricted heights or driving by trees!

Rear racks can be more problematic and it is here where people can run into problems. The rear rack, of course, has to be designed for bikes and designed to be attached properly, either to a hitch-mount or the trunk.

While they are popular because they are easy to attach and they can be swung around to allow easy access, it is also very easy for them to block parts or all of the license plate, as well as blocking the rear lights and that is where the law steps in. In order to deal with this, use an auxiliary plate that is lit so that it is visible at all times.

With both kinds of racks, it’s important to ensure that you make regular checks as you travel so that everything stays secure and don’t forget that the bike racks must be removed from the vehicle when they are not being used.

State Laws Around Bike Racks

Every state has some sort of laws around safely transporting bikes with your vehicles. Some of them are vaguer about the whole thing than others, but it’s safe to say that the following should be kept in mind:

  • Most states require that license plates and taillights be visible to other drivers while on the road. This means that if you’re using a rear mount, you may need an auxiliary plate.
  • Virginia state law is explicit in the fact that it is illegal to obscure a license plate with a hitch, let alone with anything else. (VA code 46.2-716)
  • Note that we said ‘most’. Utah state law is the opposite! License plates can be obscured by a trailer hitch, a wheelchair lift, a trailer, a bike rack, or any other cargo carrying device, as long as the installation instructions were done properly. So that’s a bit strange! Still, for the sake of other people on the road, it’s probably best to keep your license plate as clear as possible.
  • In Michigan, the law was amended to allow bike racks to block license plates as well.
  • Racks also have to be properly fitted for the vehicle and the bike themselves must be properly secured.
  • It’s been noted that states can vary in how they treat racks and license plates and even police officers may differ in whether they bother to pursue the matter or not. This means that it’s always best to err on the side of caution and check our local laws. You can do this by checking in with the place where you purchase your bike rack as the sellers should have the best idea of the legalities.

 It can be quite tricky to find information specifically about bike racks, so instead, you will want to check the laws regarding license plates and their visibility, as well as any amendments.

Here is a quick overview of which states require plates to be visible at all times as a guide to where you may run into an issue with rear racks:

State Visibility
Alabama Must be visible at all times
Alaska Must be visible at all times
Arizona Must be legible and visible
Arkansas Must be legible
California Must be clearly visible
Colorado Must be clearly visible
Connecticut Visible
Delaware Cleary readable
District of Columbia Must be clear and distinct
Florida Must be visible at all times
Georgia Must be plainly visible
Hawaii Must be visible at all times
Idaho Must be clean and visible
Illinois Must be clearly visible
Indiana Must be clearly visible
Iowa All of the numbers and letters have to be clear
Kansas Must be clearly legible
Kentucky Must be clearly visible.
Louisiana Must be clearly visible
Maine Must be clearly visible
Maryland Must be clearly visible
Massachusetts Must be obviously displayed
Michigan Must be clearly visible
Minnesota Must be plainly visible
Mississippi Must be clearly visible
Missouri Must be clearly visible
Montana Must be obviously visible
Nebraska Must be visible
Nevada Must be readable from 100 feet
New Hampshire Must be clean and not obscured
New Jersey Must be displayed conspicuously
New Mexico Must be clearly visible, legible and free from dirt or other material
New York Must be visible
North Carolina Must be readable from 100 feet
North Dakota Must be clearly visible
Ohio Must be clearly visible
Oklahoma Must be clearly visible
Oregon Has to be plain view and easy to read
Pennsylvania Must be visible at all times
Rhode Island Must be clearly visible
South Carolina Must be visible at all times
South Dakota Must be clearly visible
Tennessee Must be clearly visible
Texas Must be free of foreign material and legible
Utah Must be clearly visible
Vermont Mus be plainly legible
Virginia Must be clearly visible and legible
Washington Must be visible at all times
West Virginia Must be clearly legible
Wisconsin Must be clearly legible
Wyoming Must be clearly legible

Table 1 – https://www.buyradardetectors.com/blog/2019/03/state-license-plate-laws.html

As you can see, every state requires that license plates either be visible or legible, so having a bike rack obscuring them is problematic.

Above all, it’s important to make sure that the rack you use is properly installed and that the bikes are well secured. If you choose a rear mount, check on local law for license plate visibility and look at getting auxiliary plates to ensure you stay on the right side of the law.

Enjoy your travels!

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