I was driving around with my younger daughter this weekend when she said “I’ve never ridden on a motorcycle.” She’s ten, so she’s obviously too young to pilot one herself. But would it be lawful for her to ride as a passenger?

In a word, yes. North Carolina law does not impose a minimum age for motorcycle passengers. According to the Motorcycle Legal Foundation, only four states – Washington, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana – have minimum ages. Each of those states sets the minimum age at five years except Arkansas where it is eight years. California requires that any passenger’s feet be able to reach the footpegs.

What about car seat laws? But wait. Kids need to be in car seats, and you can’t put a car seat on a motorcycle, so doesn’t that effectively prevent them from riding as motorcycle passengers? No. The car seat law is G.S. 20-137.1, and it exempts “vehicles which are not required by federal law or regulation to be equipped with seat belts,” such as motorcycles.

Interestingly, there are various kinds of seats and retention belts designed to help keep kids on motorcycles. They are quite different in design than a car seat but may be helpful in some circumstances.

Could it be child abuse? Riding on a motorcycle is statistically much more dangerous than riding in a car. Depending on the child’s age, the weather and traffic conditions, the distance to be travelled, and what other options are available, it may be inappropriate to take a child on a motorcycle. Still, from a legal perspective, I think it would be an unusual case where taking a child on a motorcycle would rise to the level of child abuse. Although not a criminal child abuse case, In re J.M., 2019 WL 181490 (W.V. Jan. 14, 2019) (unpublished), is a case where a father’s parental rights were terminated after he took his child for a motorcycle ride. The father in that case was drinking and speeding; did not wear a helmet or provide one for the child; and crashed, causing the child to break multiple bones. The court did not suggest that the mere fact of taking the child on a motorcycle would have been sufficient to sanction the father.

Other requirements to consider. North Carolina law does require each passenger to wear a legally-compliant helmet. G.S. 20-140.4(a)(2). Further, a motorcycle can’t carry more than “the number of persons which it was designed to carry.” G.S. 20-140.4(a)(1). Neither the statute nor the cases interpreting it address how to determine the number of passengers a motorcycle is designed to carry, but it seems to me that the design of the seat and the availability of passenger footpegs would be important indicators.

Conclusion. I’ve been known to ride a motorcycle now and again. I find it scarier every year as more drivers seem to be looking at their phones, and fewer at the road. So I don’t think I’ll be taking my daughter out on two wheels any time soon. But if you have a different inclination for your kids, now you know that North Carolina law doesn’t stand in your way. You might be interested in this article which explores some of the considerations involved in riding as safely as possible with children.

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