When you buy a vehicle from a dealership, you can be sure it's in street legal condition. If you buy a vehicle in a private sale, though, it's up to you to verify that it has everything it needs to be street legal. This is also true if you own an off-road vehicle (ORV) and would like to drive it on public roads.
While legal requirements vary slightly by state, this post will cover the basic requirements a vehicle must satisfy to be considered street legal.
Many states have requirements regarding minimum vehicle height. Some states prohibit hydraulic lift suspensions. If the vehicle you purchase has been modified from manufacturer specifications (such as a "low rider" vehicle), check with your local department of motor vehicles to determine height requirements that may apply.
Having a windshield may sound like a given, but many states prohibit tinted windshields. They may also have requirements regarding the degree to which rear or side windows can be tinted. Street legal cars will also need working windshield wipers.
Every vehicle must have the following:
- Brake lights
- Turn signals
These lights must be housed in Department of Transportation-approved covers and use approved bulbs (i.e., no unusual colors). Many states have restrictions about the use of lights on the undercarriage or on the wheels, as well.
Vehicles must have at least a driver's side mirror and a rearview mirror. This may be important for certain types of ORVs that are driven on public motorways.
Street legal vehicles must use a steering wheel at least 13 inches on the outside diameter. This means that butterfly-shaped steering devices or other steering mechanisms are strictly prohibited.
Seat belts are generally required when operating a motor vehicle, though exceptions can be made for classic cars for which seat belts were not a part of the original manufacturer's design.
Every vehicle is required to have working brakes, but street legal vehicles also need to have a functioning parking brake.
Tires need to be installed in a way that reduces the risk of flying debris. Typically, this means that the rear tires must be half-covered by the fender or mud flap.
Modern exhaust systems are designed to mitigate pollution. Emissions systems are mandatory, including the muffler.
These components must also be located in a way that passengers can't touch these components when they are entering or exiting the vehicle, as the exhaust system can become very hot during operation.
Visible License Plate
Vehicles will almost invariably have a place to mount a license plate, but many drivers forget that this area must be lit. Additionally, the license plate must be visible from 100 feet. The use of reflective products (such as those designed to foil red light or toll booth cameras) are illegal.
While every state sets its own standards regarding street legal requirements, there are some basic parameters that apply across the U.S. Familiarity with these requirements can ensure that your car, truck, or ORV is prepared for America's roadways.