Dirt bike and adventure riding forums across the nation are filled with posts requesting information about the legal requirements surrounding street-legal dirt bikes, and a few posts attempting to provide answers. Street-legal dirt bikes, known as dual-sports, come in a wide variety but generally attempt a best of both worlds mix of off-road-only dirt bikes and street-legal motorcycles. Increasingly popular for their versatility, and because ever increasing numbers of state and federal parks now allow only street-legal vehicles inside the parks, these bikes offer many riders the perfect transportation/recreation combo vehicle. Unfortunately, understanding the law with regard to dual-sports isn’t nearly as much fun as actually riding one (unless you’re a lawyer), leaving many enthusiasts unsure of exactly which bikes will qualify for on-highway use or what modifications might be required for registration.
Does my bike qualify?
A growing number of motorcycle manufacturers are building factory spec dual-sports with an increasingly wide range of options and buying a bike specifically manufactured for dual sport use, registered at the time of purchase, is usually the safest route. I say usually because there is at least one major example of a manufacturer breaking its agreement with CARB, after which the State exacted its revenge by revoking the registration status of affected end-users. Over the years, a number of legal schemes have come and gone under which off-road-only dirt bikes could also be converted to dual-sport status, plated, and operated legally on public roads. To further complicate matters, many such bikes could be registered only by passing an inspection by the DMV, a process fraught with potential uncertainty, errors and deception. As a result, some bikes that were at one time technically registered may no longer qualify as street legal and some riders even report having their registration status revoked after DMV audits or an encounter with an astute peace officer.
No easy answer
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer that can be applied to every situation. Motorcycle registration is complex, due in no small part to the patchwork of agencies which have thrown their hat into the regulation ring. Rules emanating from the California Air Resources Board, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the Department of Transportation, and even the Federal Bureau of Land Management all impact off-highway vehicle usage along with a plethora of local governments and agencies, many of which have some authority to add additional requirements.
To make matters worse still, the laws governing dual-sports have changed a number of times, most notably in 2004 when the DMV issued a notice that it was suspending cross-over applications, the previous process for converting green-stickered motorcycles into dual-sports.
One of the major roadblocks to converting a dirt bike into a dual-sport stems from California’s relatively stringent emissions regulations. While motorcycles currently do not have to pass smog tests like cars, they are still closely regulated and the California Vehicle Code generally forbids modification of a vehicle’s factory emissions equipment. As a result, transitioning from off-highway use to street legal status may simply not be possible depending on what kind of emissions equipment a bike included at the time of manufacturing. For a CARB listing of approved vehicles check here.
Full safety equipment
In addition to meeting the emissions requirements of other street legal motorcycles, converted dual sports need to be properly equipped with all the standard safety devices such as headlights, brake lights, turn signals, and a horn. Consider too, that most dirt bikes are equipped with a plastic fuel tank while street legal bikes must have a steel tank installed. Noise and safety regulations must also be considered.
But my friend got plates for his…
A quick read though the forums will turn up a number of individuals claiming to have registered their dirt bikes without much trouble. It’s important to note, however, the difference between legally registered and just registered. To be fully legal, a motorcycle must be approved under ever applicable law. That means emissions restrictions, noise restrictions, D.O.T. regulations, etc. Many bikes that are registered are not actually street-legal. The owners simply got lucky. Beware that trying to pass off your bike as legal, even if you succeed in getting plates for it, might constitute a crime.
To jump into the discussion check here for an example of the kinds of arguments that erupt around this issue.
What do to?
If you are looking for a street-legal motorcycle that has the capability to tackle your favorite off-road track, your best bet is to buy one manufactured for that purpose with a clean registration history. Anything else will be hit or miss. While it may be possible to successfully convert an existing dirt bike into a street-legal dual-sport, there is no guarantee that your particular bike will qualify; or that, once registered, your plates won’t be recalled after some later change in law or policy. Even bikes successfully registered in another state may not qualify in California.
Whatever you do, make sure you know exactly what the options are for your bike before you spend time or money on a conversion.