What Makes a Car Street Legal?

Posted January 8, 2011 in Driving & Motor Vehicles by Arthur Buono

So it’s the new year and maybe one of your resolutions is to build yourself a car. Get back to nature, that sort of thing. Maybe you just remembered your car is due for inspection this month. Or maybe you’re itching to Pimp Your Ride. Whichever, your car’s got to be “street legal” and have all inspection items in good repair and proper working order.

“Street legal” means your ride has everything it needs, and nothing it can’t have

  • Check your state’s laws; remember other states may have different standards
  • Don’t rely on aftermarket assurances – if they fudge, it’s not legal
  • Copy this link to share with friends: http://bit.ly/i6cYIM

 

Required Equipment and Function; Some Prohibited Stuff

For our purposes, we’ll define “street legal” to mean having whatever it takes to take your vehicle on any public road or highway without restrictions for time or place. And, we’ll see if there are some things your car must not have to make the cut.

It’s so easy to drive a car from one state to another on the federal interstate highway system it may surprise you to know federal law does not directly control whether your car’s street legal. State law does. So, first rule: check with your state’s department of motor vehicles. Standards are similar, but not identical, among states.

As an example, the California Vehicle Code has four sections dealing with turn signals as vehicle equipment alone.

Federal law does govern certain safety and emissions standards, and these are enforced by states. The federal motor vehicle lighting standards, for example, are very detailed. All state laws require headlights that conform to the federal standards.

Below is a select list of some stuff your car must have to drive on the public highways. We’ll walk you through a mock inspection of each item. We’ll see if some popular aftermarket pimps pass muster. And we’ve randomly selected Utah’s Official Vehicle Safety Inspection Manual (pdf) as our compliance model! Booyah Beehive State!

  • Horn – the horn must be audible for at least 200 feet. Can it play “Dixie” like the General Lee? Doesn’t say it can’t. You can get kits to play audio files through your horn. Presumably you’d want to use the regular horn blast for safety. Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” might not have the desired effect. Or it might.
  • Engine hood – you need one. Hood scoops or air intakes can’t be more than 4 inches higher than hood surface.
  • Windshield – gotta have one. Tinting must allow 70% light transmittance. Tinting of front driver’s passenger’s windows must allow 43% light transmittance. Rear window must not have metallic or mirrored tinting/film.
  • Windshield wipers – need them. Inspect for function.
  • Mirrors – minimum is driver’s side and interior rearview. If window tinting is present, a passenger side mirror is also required.
  • Steering – inspect for function and excessive wear and/or maladjustment of the linkage and/or steering gear. Butterfly steering wheels aren’t allowed. Circular wheels must be 13 inches outside diameter.
  • Seat belts – need them, use them.
  • Brakes (including parking brake) – inspect for function, wear and defect.
  • Tires – inspect for wear (you need 2/32nds tread depth), damage and proper inflation. Rear tires must have top 50% covered by mud flaps on any vehicle modified from original OEM specs. If you want to mount fat racing slicks or gargantuan off-road tires, you’ll probably need those mud flaps.
  • Wheel Assembly – wheel spacers aren’t allowed. Wheel adapters are.
  • Exhaust system w/muffler – muffler cut outs, bypasses or similar devices are verboten. Fail if a passenger could be burned by any pipe or other system part on entering or exiting the vehicle. Excessive or unusual noise prohibited. Localities may have stricter ordinances.
  • Exhaust emission system – inspect for function.
  • Hi/Lo beam indicator – mandatory.
  • Headlights, tail lights, stop lights, turn signals – must be DoT approved, bulb and cover. Headlights must be at least 22 inches above ground. You can’t alter the color of any lights (pdf). You can’t obstruct the lights with grilles or impact barriers. Neon undercarriage lights may or may not be approved.
  • License plate – must be lighted. You can’t obstruct view of the plates (two required in Utah), which must be visible from 100 feet. So be careful with brackets and tinted covers.
  • Reflectors – side and rear reflectors/lamps. Amber on the side, red on the rear. You can’t alter the color. You’ll get busted for aftermarket taillight covers.
  • Bumpers – Roll pans won’t cut it unless there’s a functional bumper equivalent beneath/behind the roll pan.

These are just some of the typical inspection items. Make sure to check with your local rules for a full list.

Can I Take My ATV on The Highway?

The short answer is not unless it meets regular motor vehicle standards. Some states, like Utah, explain how certain ATVs or off-road vehicles are permitted on highways, with modifications.

Lowriders and Monster Trucks

Ground clearance is sexy. Does size matter? You betcha. Many states have minimum street clearance for street legal vehicles. It may be measured by body clearance of wheel rims. Hydraulic suspension lift may be restricted to a few inches as well. Utah requires three inches of ground clearance, excluding tires, rims or mud flaps. You can’t remove main springs or shocks.

On the other end of the spectrum, suspension, lift, rims and tires can raise a vehicle chassis well above the street. This may present rollover and override hazards (pdf). You should check your state’s laws for any maximum height regulations. Utah has maximum frame heights for vehicle weight, starting at 24 inches. The body also may not be more than three inches above the frame. Tires can’t extended beyond fenders or fender extenders.

How are these standards enforced, you ask? Well, to drive on the highways, your car has to be street legal, and with few exceptions, be registered in your state. And to be registered, it must be inspected, at least initially. This leads us to …

Vehicle Safety and Emissions Inspections

Nineteen states and Puerto Rico require regular vehicle safety inspections. Inspections are required at least every two years. Others require inspection on the importation and possibly resale of a vehicle. Inspections may occur at state facilities or at certified gas stations, repair shops, dealers, and the like.

As you can imagine, an initial or regular vehicle inspection will focus on those items the car must have to be street legal.

Your state, or certain parts of it, may also require emissions testing. An emissions test is required in those areas that flunk air federal quality standards or have dense populations or certain geographic quirks. Thirty-five states have testing programs. Inspections are annual or biennial depending on location.

When “tricking out” your ride, don’t just rely on what the seller or the part description says about the legality of the modification. Check with your DMV or state police. A non-conformance will cost you the price of the modification and a ticket.

Happy Motoring!