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Effectiveness: 1 Star Cost: $
Use: High
Time: Medium

Overall Effectiveness Concerns: Although this countermeasure is widely used, the effectiveness of current licensing and testing on crashes and safety has not been evaluated.

All 50 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico require motorcycle riders to obtain motorcycle operator licenses or endorsements before they ride on public highways (MSF, 2018). The goal of licensing is to assure that motorcycle riders have a minimum skill level needed to operate motorcycles safely (NHTSA, 2000).

State motorcycle licensing practices vary substantially. Most States have learner permits requiring only vision and/or knowledge tests. A motorcycle rider with a learner’s permit can ride only in restricted circumstances, typically some combination of no passengers, only during daylight hours, and only with the supervision of a fully licensed motorcyclist. A riding skills test is required for full licensure (Alabama does not require a skills test for licensure). Two-thirds of the States use one of three tests developed by the MSF and American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, while one-third use their own test. Most States will waive the skills test, and sometimes the knowledge test, for motorcyclists who have completed approved motorcycle rider training courses, if the student passes the knowledge and skills tests administered at the conclusion of the course. See Motorcycle Safety Foundation (2018) for a summary of each State’s licensing requirements and procedures and NCHRP (2008, Strategy C1) for brief summaries of the major skills tests currently in use.

The effectiveness of motorcycle operator licensing is not known. This is perhaps not surprising given the variability of licensing tests and procedures. NAMS recommends research to “ensure that licensing tests measure skill and behaviors required for crash avoidance” (NHTSA, 2000). NCHRP (2008, Strategies C2 and C3) describes strategies to couple training and licensing to help ensure that riders are both trained and obtain the necessary endorsements. The NCHRP notes, however, that no evaluations discuss whether increasing the proportion of validly licensed motorcycle riders would reduce motorcycle crashes or injuries.

Despite State requirements many motorcycle riders are not properly licensed. In 2018 some 28% of motorcycle riders involved in fatal crashes did not have valid motorcycle licenses, compared to 13% of passenger vehicle drivers involved in fatal crashes who were not properly licensed (NCSA, 2020). Licensing systems in some States provide no incentive to become fully licensed because learner’s permits may be renewed indefinitely (NCHRP, 2008, Strategy C3; MSF, 2018).

The NAMS (NHTSA, 2013) recommend the following prioritized approaches to encourage full licensure:

  • Merge rider education/training and licensing into one-stop operations (medium priority)
  • States issue motorcycle endorsements immediately upon course completion (medium priority)
  • Identify and remove barriers to obtaining a motorcycle endorsement (low priority)
  • Enforce penalties for improperly licensed riders (low priority)
  • Insurance policies should not be valid for improperly licensed riders (low priority)
  • Train license examiners in motorcycle issues (medium priority)
  • Develop and evaluate enhanced licensing model using graduated licensing concepts (medium priority)
  • Research to assure that licensing tests measure crash avoidance skills, behaviors (low priority)

The NCHRP (2008, Strategy C3) describes how Maryland and Minnesota used some of these strategies to increase proper licensing for motorcycle riders. Maryland used the additional strategy of comparing its vehicle registration and driver licensing files. A letter was sent to each owner of a registered motorcycle who did not have a motorcycle operator’s license. The letter reminded each registered owner that a motorcycle endorsement was required of anyone operating the registered motorcycle. This quick and inexpensive strategy caused 1,700 owners to become licensed within 4 months. A randomized controlled experiment of this intervention suggested that while the method did increase licensure, a large percentage remained unlicensed (Braver et al., 2007). California also tried this approach with similar licensure results (Limrick & Masten, 2013). Effective July 22, 2007, the State of Washington added authorization to impound vehicles operated by drivers without proper endorsement (including motorcycles as well as other vehicles). However, an evaluation of the effects of this law did not find a significant impact on new or total motorcycle endorsements after implementation (McKnight et al., 2013).

Maryland and Pennsylvania have “one-stop shops” that provide motorcycle endorsement immediately upon successful completion of State-approved motorcycle rider training courses or tests, without having to wait after receiving permit. For Pennsylvania’s procedures, see

Baer, Cook, and Baldi (2005) reviewed and summarized each State’s motorcycle education and licensing programs and practices. A companion report (Baer, Baldi, & Cook, 2005) describes training and licensing programs and actions to promote training and licensing. Under a cooperative agreement with NHTSA, AAMVA has updated its Motorcycle Operator Licensing System and Integrating Motorcycle Rider Education and Licensing manuals by publishing the Guidelines for Motorcycle Operator Licensing. The GMOL provides guidelines for State motorcycle licensing programs (Hanchulak & Robinson, 2009).

Use: All States require motorcycle riders to obtain motorcycle licenses or endorsements to ride on public highways. Less than half of responding States reported that they enforce laws relating to improperly licensed motorcyclists (Baer et al., 2010).

Effectiveness: The effectiveness of current licensing and testing on crashes and safety has not been evaluated. An evaluation of a California program to increase licensure among improperly licensed motorcycle owners through DMV letters found that while the letters did increase licensure, there was no identifiable causal effect on crash involvements or traffic violations (Limerick & Masten, 2013).

Costs: Most States charge small fees for the motorcycle licensing tests (MSF, 2018). The costs of changing the licensing tests and procedures depend on the extent of changes and the amount of retraining needed for licensing examiners as well as what portion of costs are covered by licensing fees.

Time to implement: Developing new policies to encourage higher rates of full motorcycle licensure would likely require 6 to 12 months to implement.  These include limiting the number of times provisional licenses may be renewed, administrative practices such as adding testing times and locations, or training motorcycle license examiners, or procedures such as waiving the skills test for those who have passed approved training courses. Enforcement of motorcycle licensing requirements could occur more readily if requirements for full licensure were clear enough to enforce.

Other issues:

  • Graduated driver licensing: The NAMS recommended States incorporate and evaluate GDL concepts (NHTSA, 2000) and ranked it as a medium priority (NHTSA, 2013). Additionally, the GAO recommended graduated licensing for motorcyclists as a high priority in a 2012 Report to Congress (GAO, 2012).

      Most States employ GDL for beginning automobile drivers. GDL programs for automobile drivers have been shown to be effective in reducing crashes (Hedlund et al., 2003, 2006; Williams et al., 2012). Evaluations in New Zealand and evidence from Quebec suggest that the same may be true for motorcyclists (Mayhew & Simpson, 2001). NHTSA’s GMOL includes a model graduated licensing program for motorcycle riders (Hanchulak & Robinson, 2009).

      Many States currently restrict motorcycle riders by learner permits or age (MSF, 2018). For example, California GDL prohibits passengers, freeway riding, and nighttime riding during the learner permit stage and requires all people under 21 to complete motorcycle rider training courses offered by the California Highway Patrol. In Utah motorcycle endorsements are restricted to motorcycles no larger than the size of the motorcycle used for the skills test, or used during the approved State training course (substitute). The endorsement can be changed by testing on a larger size motorcycle.