Motorcycle and ATV Towing Regulations

Towing your motorcycle can be tricky. Practice first, before taking your trailer out on the road.
Towing your motorcycle can be tricky. Practice first, before taking your trailer out on the road.
Ryan McVay/Getty Images

If you've ever towed a car or a boat with another vehicle, forget everything you think you know about towing. When it comes to towing motorcycles, experts agree that it's in a class by itself due to unique technique and safety concerns. Certainly, there are considerations that should be taken into account across the board. You'll want to know what you're doing by practicing driving with a vehicle in tow in a safe, open location before you hit the road. You'll need to know how to load your motorcycle or all-terrain vehicle (ATV) onto your trailer to ensure the weight is properly distributed (the rule of thumb is 60 percent of the weight in front of the trailer's axle and 40 percent behind it). And you'll want to follow rules and procedures that dictate driving behavior in any towing situation, like making wide right turns to protect against clipping objects and other vehicles with your trailer.

­Motorcycles present several towing challenges. Tipping, for example, can be a problem since motorcycles stand on two wheels instead of four. Properly securing the motorcycle so that it doesn't shift during transport can also be more challenging than towing a car or ATV on a trailer. Most cars come equipped with factory-installed slots made to secure cargo during transport. Motorcycles and ATVs, on the other hand, may not have this additional feature. Instead, motorcycles and ATVs must be lashed across their saddles and through their handlebars. This procedure can vary by bike or ATV, and should be practiced before towing.

You should also investigate more general concerns before you tow your motorcycle or ATV, including issues like state laws concerning towing and getting the proper insurance for you tow set up. In this article, we'll look at both of these issues to help you understand what you need to know before you head out on the open road with your motorcycle or ATV in tow. On the next page, we'll look at towing laws by state.

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Motorcycle and ATV Towing Laws by State

Heading off across state lines? It's a good idea to familiarize yourself with towing regulations for the states you'll visit.
Heading off across state lines? It's a good idea to familiarize yourself with towing regulations for the states you'll visit.
Nick Tzolov/iStockPhoto

One thing you'll find when looking at the laws regulating towing in the United States is that they often vary widely. It's a good idea to inform yourself of the differences in state towing regulations, especially before you hit the road on an interstate trip. You can find a complete list of towing laws for all 50 states and all Canadian provinces on the Lots More Information page.

All except four states explicitly require a towed trailer be connected by safety chains. These chains are an additional precaution that prevent an unhitched trailer from coming completely loose. Since the four states that don't require your trailer carrying an ATV or motorcycle don't explicitly say you must have them (it's simply not stated in the states' laws concerning towing), it's a good idea to use safety chains when you tow.

Other considerations can come up when traveling through states, depending on what kind of trailer you use to transport your motorcycle or ATV. If you have a covered trailer, you'll want to familiarize yourself with the maximum trailer height limitations from state to state. Thirty-three states have restrictions of trailer heights of 13 1/2 feet, while 16 others allow trailers 14 feet in height. Colorado and Nebraska are the wild cards when it comes to trailer height, with maximum allowable heights of 13 and 14 1/2 feet, respectively. The lesson? State trailer towing laws are not equal. Familiarize yourself with various laws governing allowable trailer dimensions in the states you intend to travel through, to protect yourself against being stuck under a bridge that's too high to pass under. Other measurements like width and length also vary widely by state.

There are some commonalities among states when it comes to towing your motorcycle or ATV. Most states require your trailer have reflective plates on the rear and sides of the trailers. Many states also require that trailers have brake lights, turn signals and tail lights. As a trailer owner, it's up to you to ensure these lights are maintained and functioning properly. If they aren't, you could face a citation.

Forty-seven states and all Canadian provinces have trailer towing laws that observe reciprocity. This means that if your towing set-up is legal in your state, an infraction of the laws of the state you're visiting can be overlooked. So if you're from Illinois and your 8 1/2-foot-wide trailer is touring through Arizona, where state law dictates residents' trailers can't exceed eight feet in width, you'll most likely get a pass. Beware; this is not the case in Colorado, Delaware and Georgia, where you could get a fine for violating state towing laws, even if your towing set-up is legal in your home state.

There is one aspect of towing that can get you in hot water, regardless of state laws; not having the proper insurance. Read the next page to find out about making sure you're covered before you tow your motorcycle or ATV.

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Motorcycle and ATV Towing Insurance

Making sure your entire tow setup is properly insured includes not only your coach vehicle and trailer, but also your ATV or motorcycle.
Making sure your entire tow setup is properly insured includes not only your coach vehicle and trailer, but also your ATV or motorcycle.
Brian Bailey/Getty Images

Insurance is vital when you tow a trailer -- any trailer. This is the case even in states that don't require a driver to insure his or her trailer. Firstly, a claim may be made against you in the event of an accident caused by your trailer in any state, including those that don't require trailer insurance. Secondly, if you have a trailer to tow your motorcycle or ATV, you probably like to travel, so you may find yourself towing across state lines. You may travel through a state that does require you have insurance for your trailer. If you're caught without it, you'll face a hefty fine, regardless of where you and your trailer hail from.

So what kind of insurance will you need? HowStuffWorks strongly suggests that you speak to your insurance agent to get to the bottom of that question. Policies covering trailers vary among states and insurance providers. Having a discussion with your insurance agent about what kind of coverage best suits you is as vital a step before hitting the road as making sure your motorcycle or ATV is properly secured to your trailer.

There are a few generalities that you're likely to find when you contact your insurance agent. Chief among them is that there aren't any auto insurance policies that extend to a trailer or its cargo in tow. In other words, the insurance policy on your coach vehicle ends at its bumper. You'll need a separate policy for your trailer. When you're towing your motorcycle or ATV, you should actually have three insurance policies covering your entire tow set-up: one for your coach vehicle, one for your trailer and one for your motorcycle or ATV. This is because all three have the capacity to cause an accident, so all three must be indemnified in case of an accident.

Let's say you're tooling along the highway with your motorcycle in tow and your trailer begins to sway. As it shifts uncontrollably to the left, the trailer strikes the car beside it. This collision jolts the motorcycle loose and it falls off the trailer and into the road, where it is struck by another vehicle. Sure, this scenario sounds nightmarish, but it could happen. With the proper insurance, you'll be covered.

In this situation, there will most likely be three claims made. First, you'll make a claim on your motorcycle's collision coverage to cover repairs to it. Secondly, the car that was struck by your trailer will make a liability claim against your coverage. Thirdly, the car that struck your dislodged motorcycle will make a liability claim against your motorcycle insurance. That covers everything, right? Not necessarily.

In most states, an accident caused by a trailer in tow or its cargo is the fault of the person driving the coach vehicle. So your auto insurance covering your car or truck doing the towing will also come into play, since the drivers of the other two cars may be allowed to make liability claims against the vehicles they came in contact with and your coach vehicle's coverage.

As you can see, it's a good idea to be properly ensured when towing a motorcycle or ATV. Again, contact your insurance agent before hitting the open road. Between good insurance and a good knowledge of various state regulations concerning motorcycle and ATV towing, you should be good to go.

For more information on towing and other related topics, visit the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

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  • Sanchez, Joann. State Farm Insurance agent. Personal interview. October 21, 2008.
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  • "Towing laws listed by state." Towing World. Accessed October 27, 2008. http://www.towingworld.com/articles/TowingLaws.htm
  • "Towing your trailer safely." California Department of Motor Vehicles. 2007. http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/dl648/dl648pt12.htm
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