Motorcycling and the Law

The start of a broad crackdown on aftermarket modifications to street-legal motorcycles?

California lane-splitting is now legal
California Governor Jerry Brown signs into law A.B. 51, CHP to draft guidelines.©Motorcyclist

Two important legal decisions came down recently. First is that lane-sharing legislation was passed into law by California governor Jerry Brown (click here for Lane-Splitting Is Legal In California!) . Second is that Harley-Davidson got smacked with a $15 million judgment by the Environmental Protection Agency for selling modules that could be used to circumvent emissions regs.

Harley getting tagged for selling what amounts to emissions-defeating devices will, I predict, be just the start of a broad crackdown on aftermarket modifications to street-legal motorcycles. Harley is, of course, the big target—a large, wealthy manufacturer with the greatest market share. It’s also well known among enthusiasts that the old V-twin designs have struggled to make power and meet emissions regulations, so one of the first things many buyers did, often before even taking delivery of a new bike, was to jettison the old exhaust, install a freer-flowing intake, and hit the fuel injection with a “tuner” module so the bike ran correctly.

California has a head start on this with Senate Bill 435, also known as the Motorcycle Anti-Tampering Act. The law says that motorcycles whose exhaust systems do not display EPA approval stickers or stampings can earn their owners a fine and a “fix-it” ticket. The law applies to new motorcycles manufactured on or after January 1, 2013. In the wake of this bill’s passing, many aftermarket companies simply stopped selling exhaust systems in California, while others went the difficult and costly route of getting approval for their systems. And yet the sale and installation of “non-approved” exhaust systems, all labeled for “off-road” or “competition use” only, continued.

California’s S.B. 435 was based on the simple act of tampering—it did not specify a new set of noise limits—and any widespread prohibitions on devices that change fuel injection and/or ignition settings from stock will likely be based on the same idea. The motorcycle manufacturer has tested and certified that its models meet state and federal emissions regulations in place at the time of manufacture, but all that goes out the window when you slap on an aftermarket tuner. There’s no telling if your special tune makes your bike exceed emissions limits until it’s tested, but the assumption from lawmakers is that it could and that’s unacceptable. To them.

Where the train left the rails, as far as the EPA is concerned, is the part where dealers were happy to install or recommend these tuning modules for “competition use only” on bikes that will never see a racetrack. This disregard for the law was so flagrant even non-motorcyclists could tell something wasn’t right; a touring rig with mom-and-pop seats, gleaming saddlebags, and 40K on the odo isn’t a competition machine. Period.

We’ve long had the ability to make motorcycles run better than when they were delivered, ranging from homemade changes to fully engineered exhausts, from jet kits to incredibly sophisticated aftermarket “bolt-on” solutions or all-out reprogramming of the injection/ignition/ride-by-wire computer. Some of these make the bike illegal in terms of emissions. The days of defending the changes by saying your license-plate-wearing commuter is, really, just a trackbike and is never ridden on the street (wink, wink) are absolutely numbered.

As for lane sharing, I’m in the optimistic camp. First, the law passed without specific speed guidelines, which, presumably, will be set by the California Highway Patrol after consulting with the Department of Transportation, the DMV, the Office of Traffic Safety, and a “motorcycle organization focused on motorcyclist safety.” Second, having legalized lane sharing, California is setting a precedent for other states. Now politicians in Florida or Maine won’t have to be the first ones; they can watch what happens in California and propose similar rules in their own states. Done right, this could be good for motorcycling across our vast and varied land.

“The days of defending the changes by saying your license-plate-wearing commuter is, really, just a trackbike are absolutely numbered.”

California finally legalized lane sharing, setting an example for other states to follow suit.