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50 State Law Vehicle Regulations - Cover Story

A 50-State Guide To Vehicle Regulations

Oct 1, 2003 SHARE
0310_sccp_01_z+50_state_law_vehicle_regulations+police_car_rear_view Photo 1/1   |   50 State Law Vehicle Regulations - Cover Story

We've all been told "the law is the law," and we simply must obey it. Oh, if it was only that simple.

When it comes to the regulation of motor vehicles, few aspects are crystal clear. This is especially true in regard to equipment and vehicle modifications.

The large chart on pages 66 through 69 provides the most current and complete report on some key issues that affect our readers, but it is at best a guideline to what is permissible in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Remember, laws are constantly revised and updated, local statutes can certainly differ, and every detail is subject to the viewpoints of local enforcement agencies. Use the Web site URLs and phone numbers for your state motor vehicle agency to obtain the latest information.

Fact is, a definitive interpretation of the law is nearly impossible to nail down. The rules on suspension height, for example, might give an exact measurement in inches, but the measurement points are tougher to define precisely. Even a statement such as "from the bottom of the bumper to the ground" isn't much help. What if the bumper location has been altered? What if it's not the factory bumper? How much is allowed for the deflection of flexible bumper covers?

In an ideal world, the chart would also include simple and direct guidelines for exhaust noise and replacement lighting units, but both topics are so involved that no authoritative, readily available source summarizing the legal limits could be found. No governmental agency compiles the statutes and no interest group records them because the thick wad of motor vehicle code, written in dense legalese, simply can't be boiled down to two concise sentences of straightforward guidance. And it would require a sizable staff of researchers just to keep up with the changes around the country.

New Cars And Federal LawWe all know new vehicles must comply with regulations enacted by a multitude of government agencies, mostly intended to ensure the public's safety and the quality of our air. Most visible among those rule-making bodies are the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHTSA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Both are federal bodies, and their mandates cannot be pre-empted by state regulation unless there has been an exception granted.

For example, a state cannot choose to allow new cars sold within its borders to spew tons of carbon monoxide from the tailpipe every mile, nor can it require that vehicles be fitted with 22 airbags in the dashboard; the federal standards take precedence. An exception is the more rigorous level of emission standards granted to California and adopted by several northeastern states.

Simple enough, right? Find a comfortable chair and read on, 'cause things get murky real quick.

First of all, you need to understand how the law applies to you. Federal motor vehicle laws, in general, are directed at "regulated parties" rather than individuals. Clearly that includes carmakers and their distributors, equipment manufacturers, importers and dealerships, but it also applies to small repair shops and even a grocery store that sells brake light bulbs. Those parties can't legally build, sell or install non-approved parts. The legal limits of individuals to modify cars are regulated at the state and local level. In practice, states such as California control the situation by making it illegal to install equipment, which is not compliant with federal regulations.

LightingOne area of particular interest is replacement lighting, as in headlights (aftermarket HID or blue beams) and clear-lens tail lamps. NHTSA regulates this equipment by performance standards (under FMVSS 108, in the body of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards), which means you don't need to use factory stock replacements at all times, but manufacturers must meet the NHTSA specs for any parts they sell for on-road use. In practical terms, according to sources inside the government agency, this means that none, or at best almost none of the aftermarket lights on the market, are compliant because they lack the proper reflectors and the brightness does not meet visibility standards. We should point out, however, that TYC by Genera sells lights for many cars that are NHTSA legal.

Clear-Lens TaillightsNHTSA's rules specify the light output and reflector performance of lighting units, and automakers must ensure the units meet the standards on new cars offered for sale. Any company making replacement units, whether they duplicate the look of the original equipment or are designed for a custom look, must meet the same standards. Certification must be ensured by an outside, independent laboratory. NHTSA does not monitor this self-certification process actively, but responds to complaints with an investigation. In many cases, this has resulted in recalls, which are listed on the NHTSA Web site. Reportedly, a very small percentage of the units offered for sale in stores and on the Internet are in fact legal for highway use, despite stating so on their packaging.

HeadlightsNHTSA mandates standards for maximum wattage, light output, color and glare (as it affects oncoming drivers when the beam pattern differs from original equipment). Furthermore, any installation such as fog lamps must not interfere with the operation of the headlights. Philips Sylvania, for example, has spent much money to ensure its auxiliary driving lights, like those installed on Project Civic, are legal.

Also, neon license plate frames are not acceptable to NHTSA at all, and undercarriage lamps cannot allow the bulb to be seen directly. Any message lamp from the car, or any interference with the third stop lamp, is not allowed.

Obstruction Of ViewWhat about the installation of a rear spoiler that blocks your sightline through the rear window? In this case, there are clear directives from NHTSA. If the field of view does not meet government mandates, an outside rear view must be installed on the right side of the vehicle. Again, this applies to new vehicles, so check with you local authorities to find out what's OK in your area for an aftermarket installation.

Exhaust NoiseDespite the existence of many interested and affected parties, including exhaust system manufacturers, there's no compiled listing of sound level laws within reach. This is because the limits are not always defined by state motor vehicle codes, but are instead left to local ordinances. The general law will read something like "may not be excessive" or "must have a muffling device," but for the most part does not specify a peak sound pressure level in dB or a measurement method.

That's no surprise, as enforcement would then require each officer to carry a dB meter and keep it calibrated as well to fully understand the measurement procedures. Where laws do exist, they're complex: Florida's statutes, a copy of which was passed along to us by the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA), go on for pages defining the size, type and model year of regulated vehicles with sound level maximums for each. That means every officer would have to carry a library of law books (and be ready with a tape measure and an appropriate testing location) in order to do by-the-book enforcement.

The point is, you need to find out what the local law is and make sure you're in compliance. If you've done that, you may present your case, with legal backup in the form of copies of the statute, to any official who questions you. If a ticket is written anyway, take the facts to the judge who hears your innocent plea.

Thanks to the efforts of SEMA, this situation may see some clarification. SEMA's model legislation, which calls for a 95dB sound limit and verification under SAE test procedure J1169, has already been adopted by California, Washington state and Maine (with approval in New Hampshire pending), and efforts to see it enacted nationwide are underway.

Tint Films And VisibilityThe chart summarizes laws applicable to passenger cars. Information applicable to light trucks can be found at the Web site cited in the resource list at the end of this article. Measurements for a tint band applied to the top of the windshield are expressed either in inches or "AS1" line. Vehicles built since the 1980s have a small white AS1 marking on the left and right edges of the windshield, which designates the top of the viewing area, and most states do not allow any aftermarket tint band at the top of the windshield to extend below this AS1 line.

Percentages of light transmission apply differently, in most jurisdictions, to the side windows at the front and rear. The "net" figure refers to the percentage of light that must pass through the window with its factory tint plus the applied film. In states where the maximum tint of the film itself is regulated, a notation of "film" is found in the left column. Measurement is performed with a mobile calibrated light meter used by law enforcement agencies.

Resources * A state-by-state compilation of motor vehicle laws (reported in survey form, not the text of the actual statutes) is available on CD-ROM ($19.95) through AAMVA (aamva.org or 703.522.4200).

* One excellent compendium of legal issues is the "Digest of Motor Laws" prepared by AAA. It contains more than 600 pages of valuable information relating to licenses, titles, traffic rules and equipment issues, all broken down by state.

Links to the motor vehicle departments for all 50 states:* www.dmvnv.com/50_state_dmv_list.html

Guide to state laws on the Internet:* www.prairienet.org/~scruffy/f.htm* National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHTSA) www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/rules/* Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA)www.sema.org

50-State Law Comparative Chart (AL-IA; ID-MS)

  AL AK AZ AR CA CO CT D.C. DE FL GA HI IA
License Plate1                          
Front required? no yes no no yes yes yes yes no no no yes yes
Cover allowed? prohibited must not obscure can't obstruct NA unlawful to cover can't obstruct readability must not obscure NA clear only must be plainly must not obscure must not obscure must retain full view
Visibility2                   visible at 100 ft.      
Windshield tint band,                          
width from top edge 6 in. 5 in. AS1 5 in. 4 in. 4 in. AS1 NA AS1 AS1 6 in. 4 in. AS1
Front side windows 32% not allowed 33% 25% 70% not allowed4 35% 70% 70% 28% 32% 29% 70%
Rear side windows 32% 37% any 25% any any4 35% 50% any 15% 32% 29% any
Suspension5                          
Ride height modification permitted permitted; maximum permitted permitted permitted with maximum permitted up to 4-in. change from permitted permitted; maximum permitted with maximum alteration of permitted; maximum permitted
    bumper height 24 in.     height limits   original height permitted   bumper height 22 in. maximum height limits 2 in. from factory height bumper height 22 in.  
Lighting                          
Auxiliary lights NA NA 2 maximum; 2 maximum; 2 maximum; NA NA NA lamps must 2 maximum; not regulated 3 maximum; 3 maximum; 12-in. to
      12-in. to 30-in. height 100 to 350 ft. range 16-in. to 42-in. height       be SAE compliant 16-in. to 42-in.   12-in. to 42-in. height 42-in. height; white,
                    height; no red or blue     yellow or amber
Contacts3                          
URL www.ador.state.al.us/ www.state.ak.us/local/ www.dot.state.az.us/ www.state.ar.us/ www.dmv.ca.gov/ www.mv.state.co.us/ www.ct.gov/dmv/ www.dmv.washington www.delaware.gov/ www.hsmv.state.fl.us/ www.dmvs.ga.gov/ www.co.honolulu.hi.us/ www.dot.state.ia.us/
  motorvehicle/index.html akpages/ADMIN/dmv/ MVD/mvd.htm dfa/your_vehicle.html   mvrules.html site/default.asp dc.gov/main.shtm yahoo/DMV     csd/vehicle/mvehicle.htm mvd/index.htm
Phone (334) 242-9056 (907) 269-5551 (800) 251-5866 (501) 682-2242 (800) 777-0133 (303) 205-5609 (800) 842-8222 (202) 727-5000 (302) 744-2510 (850) 922-9000 (404) 463-4726 (808) 270-7363 (800) 532-1121

  ID IL IN KS KY LA MA MD ME MI MN MO MS
License Plate1                          
Front required? no yes no no no no yes yes yes no yes yes no
Cover allowed? must be clearly visible clear covers only must not obstruct clear, non-reflective must not obscure must not obstruct must be legible must not obscure must be plainly visible must not obscure must not obscure full view, must not obstruct
Visibility2         covers only     at 75 ft.       legibility required  
Windshield tint band,                          
width from top edge AS1 6 in. AS1 AS1 AS1 AS1 6 in. 5 in. 4 in. 4 in. none AS1 AS1
Front side windows 35% (film) none 30% 35% 35% (film) 40% 35% 35% 50% (film) 4 in. from top edge 50% 35% 35%
Rear side windows 20% (film) any 30% 35% 18% (film) 25% 35% 35% 50% (film) any 50% any 35%
Suspension5                          
Ride height modification permitted; maximum permitted; maximum maximum alteration of permitted permitted so long as driver's permitted maximum alteration of permitted; maximum permitted; with restriction permitted; maximum maximum height from permitted; maximum maximum permitted
  bumper height 22 in. bumper height 22 in. 3 in. from factory vision is not obscured   2 in. from factory height bumper height 20 in. on equipment, door height bumper height 22 in. bottom of bumper bumper height 22 in. bumper height
      height permitted               to ground 20 in.   increase of 8 in.
Lighting                          
Auxiliary lights 2 maximum; 16-in. 3 maximum; 12-in. NA NA must project 100 ft. must be SAE compliant 22-in. to 54-in. height 2 maximum; 16-in. to color restrictions 2 maximum; 12-in. NA 3 maximum; 12-in. to 12-in. to 42-in. height;
  to 42-in. height to 42-in. height;           42-in. height; white to 30-in. height;   42-in. height; white, must project 100 ft.
    white or amber           only; must not strike   SAE compliant   yellow or amber
Contacts3               eyes of oncoming driver          
URL www2.state.id.us/ www.sos.state.il.us/ www.state.in.us/bmv/ www.accesskansas.org/ www.kytc.state.ky.us/ omv.dps.state.la.us/ www.state.ma.us/rmv/ www.mva.state.md.us/ www.state.me.us/ www.michigan.gov/sos www.dps.state.mn.us/ www.dor.mo.gov/mvdl/ www.mmvc.state.ms.us/
  itd/dmv/index.htm services/services_   living/cars-transportation.         sos/bmv/   dvs/index.html  
    motorists.html   html                  
Phone (208) 334-8606 (800) 252-8980 (317) 233-{{{6000}}} (785) 296-3566 (502) 564-4890 (877) 368-5463 (617) 351-2700 (800) 950-1682 (207) 624-9000 (517) 322-1528 (651) 296-6911 (573) 751-4509 (601) 987-3995

Key: The information in this table is the best and most current available at press time. Every attempt to present this information accurately has been made, but you must thoroughly research all matters relating to motor vehicle equipment with state and local authorities before performing any modifications to a vehicle. The information has been edited for space considerations and the complete text of statutes and regulations should be reviewed before making any vehicle modifications from factory specification. Sport Compact Car cannot be responsible for the accuracy or currency of information sources.

* NA indicates the information was not available at press time by the state motor vehicle authority.

* AS1 is the legal designation of the viewing area of a windshield, stipulated by a formula that applies equally to all vehicles. See text for details.

* The percent of light transmission is a measurement of how much light will pass through the glass, as measured by a calibrated light meter used by enforcement authorities. In most cases, the percentage listed is a 'net' figure, expressing the percentage of light transmission which must be maintained by the factory tint plus any applied tint film. Where 'film' is noted, the percentage refers to the light transmission of the applied film alone.

1-Source (license plate and lighting regulations): American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators survey "Fast Track to Vehicle Service Facts, 2003." The verbatim results of that survey have been condensed for the space requirements of this chart. A copy of the complete survey results is available on CD-ROM and can be purchased through AAMVA (aamva.org or (703) 522-4200). Check with state motor vehicle officials for exact wording of the regulations.* 2-Source: International Window Film Association, 2003. The complete listing of standards, which includes the rear window as well as other types of vehicles, is available at www.iwfa.com/ iwfa/Law_Chart/State%20Law%20Chart.htm. * 3-URL and telephone contact information for all 50 states may be found at: www.dmvnv.com/50_state_dmv_list.html. * 4-Colorado allows the window tint combination to be your choice of none front/any rear OR 27-percent front/27-percent rear. * 5-Suspension listing shows the regulations, which apply to ride height. Check with motor vehicle officials to determine the method of measurement.

50-State Law Comparative Chart (MT-PA; RI-WY)

  MT NC ND NE NH NJ NM NV NY OH OK OR PA
License Plate1                          
Front required? yes no yes yes yes yes no yes yes yes no yes no
Cover allowed? must retain full view must maintain visibillity must be clear must retain full view must not obscure must not obscure must not obstruct must not obstruct cover not allowed must not obscure NA must not alter must not obscure
                        appearance  
Visibility2                          
Windshield tint band,                          
width from top edge AS1 AS1 AS1 AS1 6 in. none AS1 or 5 in. AS1 6 in. 5 in. AS1 or 5 in. 6 in. none
Front side windows 35% (film) 35% none 35% none none 20% 35% 70% 50% 25% 35% 70%
Rear side windows 20% (film) 35% any 20% 35% any 20% any 70% 50% 25% 35% 70%
Suspension5                          
Ride height modification permitted with limitations maximum alteration of permitted; maximum permitted minimum bumper height bumper height must minimum bumper maximum bumper minimum bumper maximum bumper modification permitted; no portion of the vehicle permitted with limitations
    6 in. from factory height bumper height 27 in.   16 in. and maximum 20 in. meet manufacturer specs height 13 in. height 24 in. height 16 in. and height 22 in. height of headlamp except tires may be lower
                  maximum 30 in.   center must not be than the lowest portion less than 22 in.of wheel rim
Lighting                          
Auxiliary lights 4 maximum; 16-in. to 2 maximum; NA 2 maximum; 12-in. 3 maximum; 12-in. 2 maximum; 12- in. NA NA regulated in code 3 maximum; 16-in. to 2 maximum; 16-in. to 42-in. height; 2 fog, 2 auxiliary
  42-in. height; must must project 500 ft.;   to 42-in. height; must to 42-in. height to 42-in. height; white,       42-in. height; must must be SAE compliant turned off unless required maximum; use fog
  project 25 ft. white front, red rear   be turned off when   amber, yellow; use       project 300 ft.;   by limited visibility; alone or with high beams,
        headlights are dimmed   with low beams only       yellow, white   SAE compliant auxiliary with high beams
Contacts3                          
URL www.doj.state.mt.us/ www.dmv.dot. www.state.nd. www.dmv.state. www.state. www.state.nj. www.state.nm.us/ dmvnv.com/ www.nydmv.state.ny.us/ www.state.oh.us/odps/ www.dps.state. www.odot.state.or.us/ www.dmv.state.pa.us/
  driving/default.asp state.nc.us/ us/dot/ ne.us/index.htm nh.us/dmv/ us/mvc/ tax/mvd/mvd_home.htm     division/bmv/bmv.html ok.us/ dmv/Index.htm
Phone (406) 444-1773 (919) 715-7000 (701) 328-2725 (402) 471-2281 (603) 271-2251 (888) 486-3339 (888) MVD-INFO (877) 368-7828 (800) 225-5368 (614) 752-7500 (405) 523-1571 (503) 945-5000 (800) 932-4600

  RI SC SD TN TX UT VT VA WA WI WV WY
License Plate1                        
Front required? yes no yes no yes yes yes yes yes yes no yes
Cover allowed? must be readable cover not allowed must be must be should not obscure must be clear must be must be must be clear; must not obscure, NA not allowed
      clearly legible clearly visible     plainly legible clearly visible lighted frame illegal alter    
Visibility2                        
Windshield tint band,                        
width from top edge AS1 AS1 AS1 AS1 5 in. AS1 AS1 AS1 6 in. AS1 5 in. AS1 or 5 in.
Front side windows 70% 27% 35% 35% 35% (film) 43% none 50% 35% (film) 50% 35% 28%
Rear side windows 70% 27% 20% 35% 35% (film) any any 35% 35% (film) 35% 35% 28%
Suspension5                        
Ride height modification modification of bumper illegal to raise or lower permitted permitted with no portion of the vehicle permitted modification of bumper permitted but must no portion of vehicle modification permitted permitted; minimum permitted
  height is illegal more than 6 in. from   restrictions except tires may be   height is illegal meet state standards except tires may be 4-in. above or below bumper height 6 in.
    original height     lower than the lowest       lower than lowest manufacturer spec and maximum 31 in.
          portion of wheel rim       portion of wheel rim
Lighting                        
Auxiliary lights NA NA NA not regulated NA 2 maximum; must meet SAE must meet NA must meet SAE standards; 4 maximum; NA
            15-in. to 54-in. and DOT standards SAE standards   must not be used in place must conform
Contacts3           height; must project {{{200}}} ft.       of headlights to SAE standards  
URL www.dmv.state. www.scdps. www.state.sd.us/ www.state.tn. www.dot.state.tx. www.dmv-utah.com/ www.aot.state.vt. www.dmv.state. www.dol. www.dot.state.wi. www.wvdot.com/6_ wydotweb.state.wy.us/
  ri.us/ org/dmv/ drr/motorvcl.htm us/safety/ us/txdot.htm   us/dmv/dmvhp.htm va.us/ wa.gov/ us/drivers/index.htm motorists/dmv/6G_DMV.HTM
Phone (401) 588-3020 (800) 442-1DMV (605) 773-4493 (615) 741-3101 (512) 416-4800 (801) 297-7780 (802) 828-2000 (866) 368-5463 (360) 705-7000 (608) 264-7184 (304) 558-3900 (307) 777-4375

Key: The information in this table is the best and most current available at press time. Every attempt to present this information accurately has been made, but you must thoroughly research all matters relating to motor vehicle equipment with state and local authorities before performing any modifications to a vehicle. The information has been edited for space considerations and the complete text of statutes and regulations should be reviewed before making any vehicle modifications from factory specification. Sport Compact Car cannot be responsible for the accuracy or currency of information sources.

* NA indicates the information was not available at press time by the state motor vehicle authority.

* AS1 is the legal designation of the viewing area of a windshield, stipulated by a formula that applies equally to all vehicles. See text for details.

* The percent of light transmission is a measurement of how much light will pass through the glass, as measured by a calibrated light meter used by enforcement authorities. In most cases, the percentage listed is a 'net' figure, expressing the percentage of light transmission which must be maintained by the factory tint plus any applied tint film. Where 'film' is noted, the percentage refers to the light transmission of the applied film alone.

1-Source (license plate and lighting regulations): American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators survey "Fast Track to Vehicle Service Facts, 2003." The verbatim results of that survey have been condensed for the space requirements of this chart. A copy of the complete survey results is available on CD-ROM and can be purchased through AAMVA (aamva.org or (703) 522-4200). Check with state motor vehicle officials for exact wording of the regulations.* 2-Source: International Window Film Association, 2003. The complete listing of standards, which includes the rear window as well as other types of vehicles, is available at www.iwfa.com/ iwfa/Law_Chart/State%20Law%20Chart.htm. * 3-URL and telephone contact information for all 50 states may be found at: www.dmvnv.com/50_state_dmv_list.html. * 4-Colorado allows the window tint combination to be your choice of none front/any rear OR 27-percent front/27-percent rear. * 5-Suspension listing shows the regulations, which apply to ride height. Check with motor vehicle officials to determine the method of measurement.

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