Three-Wheeled Automobiles Should Not be Classified as Motorcycles

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4/27/2019 8:03:26 AM
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Three-Wheeled Automobiles Should Not be Classified as Motorcycles


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Three-Wheeled Automobiles Should Not be Classified as Motorcycles
April 26, 2019

This month, the Motorcycle Riders Foundation (MRF) announced the introduction of a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) regarding the current federal definition of motorcycles.  NHTSA defines a motorcycle as a motor vehicle with motive power having a seat or saddle for the use of the rider and designed to travel on not more than three wheels in contact with the ground.  With the recent proliferation of three wheeled automobiles such as the Polaris Slingshot and the Campagna T-Rex, this definition is no longer adequate.  A motor vehicle equipped with a foot-controlled accelerator and a steering wheel should not fall under the definition of a motorcycle merely because it has three wheels. 

Many motorcycle rights organizations have addressed this issue on the state level.  The majority of states now have a classification of motor vehicle called an autocycle.  Although definitions can vary from state to state, the following is a typical autocycle definition:

 "Autocycle means a three-wheeled motor vehicle that has a steering wheel and seating that does not require the operator to straddle or sit astride and is manufactured to comply with federal safety requirements for motorcycles. Except as otherwise provided, an autocycle shall not be deemed to be a motorcycle.”

One of the reasons that state motorcycle rights organizations are addressing this issue is to prevent these vehicles, which are growing in popularity, from being included in motorcycle crash data.  Including motor vehicles that are not actually motorcycles in the corresponding crash data negatively impacts our data.  However, the manufacturers of three wheeled automobiles prefer to have their vehicles classified as motorcycles because it avoids them having to meet federal automotive safety standards.  This allows them to manufacture these vehicles at a lower cost than if they were forced to meet the safety standards for automobiles.  The autocycle definition above was written so as to take that concern into consideration.    

While addressing this issue on the state level helps, until it is addressed on the federal level we will continue to see three-wheeled automobiles included in motorcycle crash data. We will also, as the recent announcement by the MRF so aptly put it, continue to have “a patchwork of rules and regulations at the state level for licensing, registration and insurance.”  It is time for uniformity with regard to this issue.  It is time to take a look at the federal definitions of motor vehicles and bring those definitions in line with what is actually being operated on our roadways today.

As always, if you have any questions or comments about anything that I have written, please feel free to contact me.  If you would like to read MRF’s announcement on this issue I have copied it below.

Matt Danielson
McGrath, Danielson, Sorrell & Fuller
The Motorcycle Law Group

From the Motorcycle Riders Foundation
April 12, 2019

Letter sent to NHTSA Seeking Clarification on the Definition of a Motorcycle

The Motorcycle Riders Foundation would like to thank Congressman Michael Burgess (TX) and Congressman Tim Walberg (MI) for a letter they sent this week to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) seeking clarification regarding the definition of a motorcycle. In addition to Congressman Burgess and Congressman Wahlberg, the following U.S. Representatives joined their colleagues in signing the letter: Congressman Troy Balderson (OH), Congressman Doug Lamborn (CO), Congressman Collin Peterson (MN), Congressman Steve Stivers (OH) and Congressman Glenn “GT” Thompson (PA). The current definition is decades old and so broad that new vehicles on our roadways, with numerous carlike features, are defined as motorcycles.

“As you know, NHTSA has long defined a motorcycle as a ‘motor vehicle with motive power having a seat or saddle for the use of the rider and designed to travel on not more than three wheels in contact with the ground.’ While this was a clear characterization for many years, the recent emergence of a new class of vehicle that has attributes of both automobiles and motorcycles has created confusion,” the members wrote. “We respectfully request a response that describes whether NHTSA believes the current federal definition of a motorcycle is appropriate and if not, what NHTSA is doing to address this issue.”

The ambiguity of the classification of these new vehicles as either motorcycles or autocycles has created a patchwork of rules and regulations at the state level for licensing, registration and insurance. The MRF believes that a review of this definition is needed and would help provide clarity to states when making decisions on how to appropriately regulate them. We thank these seven members of Congress for seeking clarification from NHTSA on this issue of importance to motorcyclists.

President of the MRF, Kirk “Hardtail” Willard, stated “For three years our members have asked us to tackle the federal definition of a motorcycle. This letter is the first step in helping us understand the current thought process of NHTSA and hopefully opens up a dialogue on the topic. We thank this bipartisan group of Congressmen for their leadership on this issue.”

Link to the Letter:

About Motorcycle Riders Foundation

The Motorcycle Riders Foundation (MRF) provides leadership at the federal level for states’ motorcyclists’ rights organizations as well as motorcycle clubs and individual riders. The MRF is chiefly concerned with issues at the national and international levels that impact the freedom and safety of American street motorcyclists. The MRF is committed to being a national advocate for the advancement of motorcycling and its associated lifestyle and works in conjunction with its partners to help educate elected officials and policymakers in Washington and beyond.




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