Topic:
SAFETY (GENERAL); MOTORCYCLES; STATISTICAL INFORMATION; LEGISLATION;
Location:
MOTORCYCLES;

OLR Research Report


September 5, 2006

 

2006-R-0537

MAXIMUM HEIGHT REQUIREMENT FOR HANDLEBARS ON MOTORCYCLES

By: James J. Fazzalaro, Principal Analyst

You asked several questions regarding the statutory maximum height limit for motorcycle handlebars including:

1. What is the requirement?

2. When was it implemented?

3. What is the basis for the requirement?

4. What requirements are there in other states?

5. How is motorcycle handlebar height relevant to safe operation?

6. How often are motorcyclists cited for violating the requirement?

7. What issues relate to enforcing the requirement?

8. What other information may be relevant to considering whether the requirement should be changed?

SUMMARY

Connecticut law prohibits a motorcycle from having handlebars that are higher than 15 inches above the uppermost portion of the seat when it is depressed by the weight of the operator. Connecticut established this requirement by statute in 1967, but it had existed before as a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) regulation. There are no administrative records we could find that show how long the DMV regulation existed before it was made law. There is little in the legislative record when the law was passed that provides substantive information on why this particular standard was chosen. The law is substantially a verbatim enactment of the DMV regulation. State officials who testified on the legislation only indicated that it was being proposed for adoption as law to make it more accessible to the public and make it easier to educate the public on the requirement because it would be easier for them to find. The proposal was supported by the state police, DMV, Connecticut Safety Commission, and Connecticut Motorcycle Dealers Association and opposed by a representative of the Connecticut Motorcycle Association.

We were not able to find any scientific studies that establish why a 15-inch standard was considered preferable to other standards. It appears that adoption of the 15-inch standard was common by states during the late 1950s and 1960s. Motorcycle riders generally seem to attribute this to an effort by law enforcement to adopt a means to regulate so called “outlaw” bikers who frequently would customize their vehicles with various adaptations, including extremely high handlebars. Law enforcement officials generally state that it is related to safe control of the motorcycle. We found no specific information to refute either position.

There appear to be three general concerns raised regarding excessively high motorcycle handlebars: (1) they may make the motorcycle more difficult to steer, (2) rider posture where the hands and arms are above shoulder level could lead to operator fatigue, and (3) they create an additional obstacle that a rider may hit during an emergency situation. These concerns appear to have merit on an intuitive level, but we found little information quantifying their effects.

Riders tend to argue that the 15-inch standard is arbitrary and difficult to comply with in the context of modern motorcycles and the wider range of rider types using motorcycles today. They state that assuming a comfortable rider position for them may require a higher hand position on the handlebar grips than the law allows. While there may be some merit to these observations, we found that the motorcycle training materials developed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation and used by most states to train novice motorcycle operators suggest a rider position where the hands are somewhat below shoulder level. We also found some anecdotal information from at least a small portion of the rider community supporting the notion that positions where the rider has his hands above shoulder level should be avoided.

Of approximately 150 motorcycle models for which we found handlebar specification information from one source, it appears that about 85% of stock motorcycle designs come with handlebar heights of seven inches or less. Whether these stock motorcycles comply with a 15-inch standard essentially depends on how the handlebars relate to the seat design.

Currently, 34 states and the District of Columbia have maximum handlebar height restrictions. Sixteen states have no restrictions. Of the 35 jurisdictions with restrictions, 20 have the 15-inch requirement similar to Connecticut's. Another 10 generally require the handgrips on motorcycle handlebars to be below shoulder level on the rider. The other four states have different standards. There appears to have been a trend in recent years for states to move away from the 15-inch standard to either no standard or a shoulder height restriction.

Handlebar height violations in Connecticut are not frequent. There has been an annual average of 26 offenses reaching the judicial system over the last five fiscal years. The most citations issued in any of the five years was 38 in FY 04.

Some concerns have been raised with respect to interpretation and application of the law by law enforcement officers. It appears not all officers may interpret the law the same way. The Office of Legislative Research may not give legal opinions nor does it provide official interpretation of laws, but we believe that the reading of the law that most closely approximates the ostensible purpose of the law would be that the height of the handlebars should probably be measured from the top surface of the portion of the seat that the rider is sitting on to the highest part of the handlebars not including any equipment or accessories that are attached to the handlebars that do not directly relate to the functions of the handlebars, e.g. mirrors, radio speakers, and similar equipment. One way to clarify the law for the benefit of all law enforcement personnel would be for the DMV to issue a law enforcement advisory as it occasionally does with either new laws or laws for which interpretative issues have arisen.

Issues relating to safe motorcycle operation can be controversial due to the fact that a relatively high proportion of Connecticut's traffic fatalities are motorcyclists. In 2004, over 19% of Connecticut's traffic fatalities were motorcyclists. This was more than twice the proportion for the United States as a whole and was the highest such proportion of any state.

MAXIMUM HANDLEBAR HEIGHT REQUIREMENT

Statutory Requirement

State law prohibits operating a motorcycle on a highway or in any parking area for 10 or more motor vehicles if the motorcycle is equipped with handlebars that are “more than fifteen inches in height above the uppermost portion of the seat when the seat is depressed by the weight of the operator” (CGS 14-80i). A violation of the requirement is an infraction. Currently, a violator who mails payment for the violation to the Centralized Infractions Bureau must pay a total amount of fine, surcharges, and other fees of $75.

History of the Requirement

The motorcycle handlebar height requirement was first enacted as state law in 1967, but existed some time prior to then as a DMV regulation. The requirement was recodified to its present location in the statutes in 1984, but it has not been substantively changed since its original enactment.

State law authorizes the motor vehicle commissioner to make any regulation relating to the use of any device or accessory on a motor vehicle in the interest of public safety (CGS 14-137). Over the years, the commissioner has adopted regulations governing numerous types of motor vehicle equipment under this authority without the necessity of the legislature adopting the requirements as law. For example, until the legislature legalized them in 1992, the use of radar detectors in motor vehicles was prohibited by DMV regulation under the general authority granted by CGS 14-137.

The 15-inch maximum handlebar requirement was one such regulation. However, since there are no reliable administrative records for regulations dating back to the 1950s and 1960s as there are now, we could not determine how long the DMV regulation existed before its enactment as a law in 1967.

There is little in the legislative record from the 1967 enactment nor its recodification in 1984 that addresses the specific reason for a 15-inch maximum height requirement for handlebars versus some other standard. Rather, most of the testimony the Transportation Committee received on two bills (HB 4655 and SB 635) at its public hearings related

to how the legislation merely took the existing DMV regulation and made it a statute because there was misunderstanding as to where the public could find the requirements and that making it a law would make it easier to find and easier to educate the public about.

SB 635, which codified only the motorcycle handlebar height requirement received its public hearing on April 12, 1967. It was supported by Captain Walter Stecko of the Connecticut State Police, Edward Carroll representing the DMV, Bill Adint of the Connecticut Safety Commission, and Donald Mei of the Connecticut Motorcycle Dealers Association. It was opposed by a representative of the Connecticut Motorcycle Association who was identified in the record only as “Mr. Boardman.” Boardman opposed the bill “on general principal to a particular lack of understanding in controllability of a motorcycle with handle bars fifteen inches from the seat when fully depressed by the rider.” He also stated that they “would like to be able to perhaps amend that regulation in some way, make it more feasible for all motorcyclists,” but he offered no specificity with respect to what he meant by that statement or what standard he felt should exist rather than the 15-inch requirement (Transportation Committee transcript, April 12, 1967, p. 370).

The Transportation Committee heard HB 4655 on April 17, 1967. The bill contained the same provision regarding motorcycle handlebars, but also included codification of several other DMV regulations as well. Captain Stecko and Edward Carroll testified in support of the bill essentially reiterating their testimony given previously on SB 635. In addition, Donald Potter, Research Director of the Legislative Council testified in support of the bill stating that it was a result of a study by the council of those DMV regulations identifying all of those “that seemed to be of the type of having a permanent nature and of such importance” that they should be codified where they would be readily available (Transportation Committee transcript, April 17, 1967, p. 401). Potter cited the 12th biennial report of the Legislative Council in which the council states that after conferring with the motor vehicles commissioner and reviewing its regulations it had identified several that “in the public interest should be incorporated in the General Statutes” (p.90). No one testified in opposition to the bill.

BASIS FOR A HANDLEBAR HEIGHT LIMIT

Issues

We were unable to find any unequivocal information or scientific studies that establish a context for either Connecticut's handlebar height standard or for the relationship between handlebar height and accident experience. This is not surprising given the age of the requirement and the lack of specificity in accident data with respect to elements of the physical configuration of a motorcycle that could lead to loss of control as a contributing factor to an accident. Although accident databases might indicate that loss of control of the vehicle could have been the cause of an accident, what may have caused the loss of control may not be determinable without the ability to refer to the actual narrative of the police accident report.

Notwithstanding this limitation and lack of apparent studies on this subject, some general observations may be in order. Based on information we gleaned from several sources, most of the motorcycle handlebar requirements around the country began appearing in the late 1950s and 1960s. The reasoning given for these requirements seems to depend on the source of the information to a great degree. Police and highway safety agencies argued that handlebar heights needed to be controlled because they affected the ability to steer the vehicle effectively and control its mechanical operations through throttle and brake operation. Motorcyclists and the organizations that represent them argued that the regulations were an attempt by law enforcement agencies to create an avenue for harassing motorcyclists and, in particular, so called “outlaw” bikers who frequently customized their motorcycles with radical handlebar configurations and other modifications.

There may be elements of truth to both of these perceptions. Several of the most recent efforts in other states to modify or repeal motorcycle handlebar height limits appear to have been triggered by stepped up enforcement of the requirement by police. This raised concerns among the motorcycle riders that translated into the legislative initiatives. On the other hand, the contribution proper rider posture makes to safe control and avoidance of rider fatigue is, if not directly quantifiable, logical on an intuitive basis. Almost all of the motorcycle safety literature we found tends to emphasize this relationship, although not in specific terms of handlebar height.

Motorcycles are very customizable vehicles and handlebar configurations are one of the most customizable features, both in terms of the height and width of the bars and the relationship of the grips to the bar configuration. In some configurations, the handlebars rise vertically and then bend back downward so that the grips are lower than the highest point of the handlebars. In their most extreme form, so called “apehangers,” the handlebars can be so high that the rider's hands are at head level or higher.

Based on the material we were able to consult, there are three factors relating to high handlebars that some advocates of height limits assert could be causes for concern. They are:

1. They may make a motorcycle more difficult to steer;

2. Handlebars that create rider posture where the hands and arms are above shoulder level could compromise optimal blood flow to the rider's arms and hands resulting in fatigue and numbness affecting both steering use of the hand controls; and

3. Excessively high handlebars provide obstacles the rider could hit during an emergency, loss of control, or accident potentially inducing injuries that might not occur with standard handlebar configurations.

While each of these points seem to have merit on an intuitive level, we could find no quantifiable data on which to base an unequivocal endorsement of their accuracy. However, with respect to the steering issue, it appears to be the opinion of DMV inspectors who administer motorcycle license tests in Connecticut that drivers of large motorcycles with raised handlebars are more likely to fail the part of the test that requires them to maneuver around traffic cones. Their belief is that these configurations are more difficult to maneuver (See OLR Report 2003-R-0613). We would note however, that these conclusions were the subjective opinions of the inspectors based on their experience administering the tests and not based on compiled statistics.

Opponents of handlebar limits such as Connecticut's argue that all of these points are speculative and not based on scientific evidence. They further argue that the 15-inch standard is arbitrary and not suitable for all riders since body types vary. We found no information by which we could verify the reasonableness of selecting the 15-inch limit over other possible limitations back when most states adopted it in the 1960s. It may be that this standard was selected because motorcycles manufactured in that time period typically did not exceed that handlebar height in their stock versions. However, we could find no information to support that possibility and it should be considered speculative.

Motorcyclists who use high handlebar configurations generally seem to argue that they do not feel their ability to steer is compromised and some state that this riding position is actually more comfortable for them. However, even some of these advocates seem to acknowledge limits to this notion. Although clearly anecdotal, we found one example of an internet newsgroup exchange on the issue of “apehanger” handlebars where the writer, who generally opposed handlebar height restrictions and asserted he operates his motorcycle with 18-inch “apehangers” (legal in his jurisdiction) without any problems handling his motorcycle, appeared to acknowledge that excessively high handlebars may be problematic.

We found these two statements made by the poster of interest.

“With ape hangers, I'm upright, sitting back in a relaxed but alert position, straight up and down, hands in front. I can't see anything against it.”

“Naturally, there is always going to be someone who'll put bars so high that his hands are above his eyes. Darwin is more likely to get rid of these sorts of people as legislation. I'll guarantee you this will never be done on a bike that is regularly ridden—even if your arms don't fall asleep, that really IS a ridiculous riding position. I've ridden one which was overexaggerated (sic) to make a point, and it was steerable, but cumbersome. This doesn't negate the usefulness of ape hangers per se—most people who tinker with bars are doing so to put their hands in the best and most comfortable position.” (Source: ape hangers@Everything2.com, Aug. 17, 2006)


Motorcycles made for street use come in several styles as shown to the right. These include touring, cruiser, sport, and standard designs. In each stock design, the handlebars, seat design and placement, and other elements of the motorcycle can bear a different relationship to one another. For example, in the sport model, the streamlined design puts the handlebars much closer to the seat level than in the other types of motorcycles. It appears, however, that in each of the typical model designs, the handlebars themselves are not radically higher than the seat level. (The model diagram was taken from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF), Basic Rider Course Handbook, p. 3. The MSF training curriculum is the most widely recognized motorcycle rider education program and forms the basis of most states
' motorcycle rider education programs, including Connecticut's.)

Stock Motorcycle Handlebar Heights

The stock version handlebar heights for various models of motorcycles from several major manufacturers fall within the ranges shown below based on one source of motorcycle handlebar specifications we were able to find (Flanders Motorcycle Handlebars http://sideroadcycles.com/ImportedMotorcycles/ImportHandlebars/StockBarsOne.html).

● Harley Davidson—3.5 to 10 inches

● Buell—4 to 6.5 inches

● Victory—5 to 8 inches

● Indian—6 to 7.5 inches

● Honda—3 to 8 inches

● Kawasaki—3.5 to 8.5 inches

● Suzuki—3 to 7 inches

● Yamaha—3 to 9.5 inches

● Triumph—2.5 to 9 inches

● Ducati—2.5 to 4.5 inches

Of the total of 150 motorcycle models for which handlebar height was included in the database, 85% of the models had stock handlebars the heights of which were seven inches or less from the point of attachment to the frame to the control ends. The handlebar heights for all models broke down as follows: 26% had handlebars of 4.5 inches or less, 59% had handlebars of 5 to 7 inches in height, and 15% of the models had handlebars that were 7.5 to 10 inches in height.

Based on these specifications, it would appear that about 85% of the most common stock motorcycle models from these manufacturers might possibly meet the 15-inch standard as long as the distance from the handlebars to the uppermost portion of the seat with the rider sitting upon it did not exceed eight inches. Obviously this distance could be greater for the 26% of models with handlebar heights of 4.5 inches or less.

Rider Posture

In its Motorcycle Operator Manual, the MSF identifies the following principles regarding body position on a motorcycle in order for the operator to control a motorcycle well (p.10).

1. Posture—Sit so you can use your arms to steer the motorcycle rather than to hold yourself up.

2. Seat—Sit far enough forward so that arms are slightly bent when you hold the handlegrips. Bending your arms permits you to press on the handlebars without having to stretch.

3. Hands—Hold the handlegrips firmly to keep your right wrist flat. This will help you keep from accidentally using too much throttle. Also, adjust the handlebars so that your hands are even with or below your elbows. This permits you to use the proper muscles for precision steering. (emphasis added)

The manual does not specifically address whether there is a “proper“ or optimal height for handlebars, but these principles and the depictions of rider position while turning (below) seems to suggest that the ideal hand position for properly controlling a motorcycle is somewhat below shoulder level.

Source: MSF Motorcycle Operator Manual, p.12

Figure 1 below shows another example of this taken from the MSF Basic Rider Course Handbook (p.20). It again shows recommended riding posture with handlebars at a height that puts the rider's hands on the grips below shoulder level.

Figure 1. Riding Posture –MSF Basic Rider Course Handbook

While there are other opinions frequently expressed with respect to riding position from motorcycle users, we have included this material from the MSF documents because this program is generally considered to be both expert and authoritative and is used widely throughout the country to teach novice motorcyclists how to operate properly and safely.

HANDLEBAR HEIGHT LIMITS IN OTHER STATES

The 15-inch handlebar height limit is the most common limitation currently in effect in those states that have established a limit. As of June 2006, according to the MSF, 35 states and the District of Columbia have some type of handlebar height limit. Of these 35 jurisdictions, 20, including Connecticut, have set a maximum handlebar height at not more than 15 inches above the seat. The second most common restriction requires a motorcycle's handgrips to be below shoulder height (10 states). Two states allow handlebars to be no more than 30 inches above seat level; one state allows them to be no higher than 15 inches measured from their fastening point on the motorcycle; one state prohibits them from being higher than the operator's eye level; and one state allows motorcycle handgrips to be no more than six inches above shoulder height. Sixteen states do not have height limitations for motorcycle handlebars.

Table 1 shows the requirements by state.

Table 1. Motorcycle Handlebar Height Restrictions By State

Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia

MAXIMUM OF 15 INCHES ABOVE SEAT

Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, South Dakota, Wyoming

HANDGRIPS MUST BE BELOW SHOULDER HEIGHT

Nebraska

MAXIMUM OF 15 INCHES ABOVE HANDLEBAR FASTENING POINT

Washington, Wisconsin

MAXIMUM OF 30 INCHES ABOVE SEAT

Oklahoma

HANDLEBARS MAY NOT BE HIGHER THAN OPERATOR'S EYE LEVEL

California

HANDLEBARS MUST BE POSITIONED SO THAT OPERATOR'S HANDS ON GRIPS ARE NOT MORE THAN 6 INCHES ABOVE SHOULDER HEIGHT WHEN SEATED

Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia

NO RESTRICTIONS ON HANDLEBAR HEIGHT

The number of states maintaining a 15-inch above seat level standard has decreased from 27 to 20 since 1997 and the number of states with a “below shoulder height” standard has decreased from 13 to 10. Conversely, since 1997 10 states have eliminated their standards (6 states to 16). Most recently, in 2005 Arizona and New York changed from a 15-inch standard to a shoulder height standard, Delaware and South Carolina went from a 15-inch standard to no restrictions, and Kansas went from a shoulder height standard to no restrictions.

HANDLEBAR HEIGHT VIOLATIONS

The number of citations written for motorcycle handlebar height violations is fairly small each year, averaging only about 26 per year over the last five years. The most citations written in a single year was in FY 04 when 38 offenses were recorded. Table 2 shows the number of height violations entered in the Judicial Department database for the last five fiscal years and their disposition.

Table 2. Motorcycle Handlebar Height Limit Violations

Violations for Excessive Motorcycle Handlebar Height and Disposition

FY 02-FY 06

 

Offenses

Adjudication of Guilt

(Conviction, Plea, or Payment to Centralized Infractions Bureau)

Bond Forfeiture

Failure to Appear

Nolle

FY 02

22

15

1

---

6

FY 03

29

18

3

2

6

FY 04

38

27

1

---

10

FY 05

21

14

1

---

6

FY 06

22

8

5

---

9

ENFORCEMENT ISSUES

The constituent who raised the issue of motorcycle handlebar height apparently feels that there is some confusion or inconsistency with the way the law is enforced. Based on her contacts with police and DMV she asserts that the several sources she contacted provided different interpretations of how the handlebar height should be measured.

As you know, the Office of Legislative Research cannot provide legal opinions nor does it officially interpret the law. However, we may be able to assist in understanding the plain language of the law as it currently exists. Unfortunately, as noted above, there is no significant legislative record on this requirement that can help determine what the legislature may have intended from the wording of the law.

CGS 14-80i prohibits motorcycles from having handlebars that are more than 15 inches in height above the “uppermost portion of the seat when the seat is depressed by the weight of the operator.” The two key concepts in the wording appear to be the terms “handlebars” and “uppermost portion of the seat”. The term “handlebars” while seemingly clear, apparently may have been interpreted by someone to include anything that is attached to them as well. Thus the measurement could be made to the highest point of any piece of equipment that might be attached to the handlebars. Keeping in mind that the purpose of the handlebar height restriction is ostensibly to regulate the placement of the equipment of the motorcycle that controls its steering in the interest of not compromising its function, it would seem that considering other equipment that serves another purpose, for example, a rear view mirror or a radio attached to the handlebars as part of the handlebars for purposes of this regulation seems to be unnecessary to achieving its purpose. Thus we believe that the most logical way to apply the requirement would be not to include any equipment attached to the handlebars that is not an integral part of the functions it is actually designed to perform.

The other concept that has apparently caused some uncertainty is the use of the term “uppermost portion of the seat.” As can be seen from the diagrams of motorcycle designs included above, motorcycle seats are frequently curved to follow the flow of the motorcycle's design and frequently extend behind the place where the rider actually sits, for example, to accommodate a passenger. Thus, there could be some confusion as to whether “uppermost” should be interpreted to mean the “highest” part of the seat as it is designed, whether or not the operator can actually operate the vehicle from that portion of the seat. Again, keeping in mind the ostensible purpose of the regulation, it would seem illogical to consider any part of the seat that the driver does not sit on as relevant to application of a requirement that seemingly intended to govern his positional relationship to the equipment he uses to steer the vehicle. Therefore, it seems that the most reasonable reading for applying the concept “uppermost portion of the seat when it is depressed by the weight of the operator” would be to measure from the top surface of that part of the seat the driver is actually sitting on while operating the vehicle. Otherwise there would seem to be no reason for using the term “portion of the seat when it is depressed by the weight of the operator.” If this was not intended the regulation could simply have been written “from the highest point on the seat to the highest point on the handlebars.”

One way to eliminate any confusion about how the law should be applied could be for the DMV to issue one of its “law enforcement advisories.” DMV occasionally issues such advisories to all law enforcement agencies when it believes they may need guidance in how to interpret a particular law. Frequently, this is either before a new law passed by the legislature goes into effect or if it comes to DMV's attention that there has been a problem interpreting a law that already exists. Such an advisory might be useful in this instance.

MOTORCYCLE FATALITIES IN CONNECTICUT

Any issue that might relate to safe motorcycle operations could raise concerns about motorcycle fatalities in Connecticut. Motorcycle fatalities represent a significant portion of all motor vehicle fatalities that occur here. In 2004, 57 of Connecticut's total of 291 motor vehicle fatalities were motorcyclists. The 57 motorcyclist fatalities represent 19.6% of all Connecticut's traffic fatalities in 2004—almost one of every five people killed. This was more than twice the national proportion of 9% and the highest proportion of fatalities represented by motorcyclists of any state.

Preliminary data for 2005 shows an estimated total of 274 traffic fatalities. Of these an estimated 43 (15.7%) were motorcyclists. These preliminary figures may change slightly before the fatality data is finalized by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

JF:ts