Are Side-by-Sides Street Legal in California?
Some people enjoy off-road and trail driving, adventurous activities that require a side-by-side (UTV) or an ATV. These vehicles are designed for harsh environments but should work fine on the street.
However, each state has varying regulations on whether side-by-sides are street-legal or not.
The State of California has detailed laws on what constitutes a side-by-side. So if you’re not sure where you can drive yours, you’ve come to the right place. Read on to find out are side-by-sides street legal in California.
What Is a UTV?
Utility-terrain vehicles, or UTVs, are what California calls a vehicle designed for recreational driving outside of highways. They have the following features:
- They’re meant for off-road and trail driving instead of highways and streets
- Drivers use a steering wheel to control the direction of the vehicle
- The vehicle has a non-straddle seat for drivers and passengers
- The maximum speed capacity of the UTV is more than 30 miles per hour
- The engine volume (capacity) is at or below 1,000cc
UTVs aren’t the same as ATVs or all-terrain vehicles. ATVs are classified with these characteristics:
- Designed for off-road driving with one driver and no more than one passenger
- A width of 50 inches or less
- An unladen weight of 900 pounds or below
- At least three low-pressure tires
- A straddle-seat for the driver
- Steering is done via handlebars
A side-by-side will fall into the UTV category and is frequently referred to as a UTV.
Are They Street Legal in California?
Unfortunately, side-by-sides aren’t legal on California roads, nor are ATVs. The state only allows owners to drive them in designated areas or private property. Within these areas, you have the freedom to drive however you like, provided you do so safely and with others’ safety in mind.
The main reason for this prohibition is that California has a high population density, which results in more cars on the road. In addition, the state’s road system is also quite crowded. Both factors make driving a side-by-side on the streets extremely unsafe. Los Angeles alone has a population of almost four million (18 million in the metro area), and you can imagine how bad traffic can be during rush hour.
The entire network of highways is more than 50,000 miles long and connects practically the whole state. Driving a side-by-side on these roads would be risky for everyone, as the more cars there are on the street, the more dangerous roads become. California is one of the most unsafe places to drive in as a result.
The state protects all drivers by prohibiting ATVs and UTVs from being driven on the road. Except for some particular situations, you should stick to trails. A side-by-side is very small compared to the sedans and coupes you see on the road, and one hit can cause devastating results.
If California made driving ATVs and UTVS on streets legal, it would be a serious safety concern.
Below are some exceptions, but they’re atypical and might require explicit approval from the authorities.
For example, you can cross a street with two lanes at an approximately 90-degree angle. For roads with more lanes, you can only cross it when there are signs allowing it.
Streets designated for ATV or UTV operation are legal to travel on, but only if there’s still daylight, the road has a functioning spotlight, and your vehicle has rubber tires. You also need your driver’s license to be driving on the street.
These roads are usually designed to connect off-road trails. They are rarely more than three miles long and thus are much safer to drive on. However, it’s best to exercise caution always and never go beyond these exceptions.
Other states allow owners to drive side-by-sides on the road, provided they make the vehicle street-legal. Arizona has a way to make these vehicles street-legal, and it’s one of the easiest places to do so. Idaho has also made them drivable on most streets.
Sadly, California has no legal procedure for making this happen.
Off-Highway Vehicle Regulations for California
Knowing your state’s laws for off-highway vehicles is essential to avoid fines and penalties. Other than ATVs and UTVs, the regulations also cover these vehicles.
- Motor-driven cycles
- Trail bikes
Remember that in private areas, ATV and UTV laws don’t apply. You can operate your side-by-side freely without the risk of getting fined as long as you follow safety procedures.
Registering a Side-By-Side in California
Side-by-sides in California must be registered with the state, which involves getting an official title. Purchasing one from a Californian dealer is much easier, as you’ll get the DMV paperwork that places the UTV under your name.
However, if you acquired one outside of California, the process is more complicated. You’ll need to submit the following information to the state.
- Title and registration application
- Vehicle verification paperwork
- Evidence of owning the UTV
- Off-highway vehicle fees
UTV ownership evidence can be the original copy of a factory invoice, certificate of origin, bills of sale, or titling documents from another state.
In some cases, you’ll have to submit extra information:
- Transfer or duplicate of title application
- Planned non-operation certification
- Non-operation certification
- The side-by-side’s ID plates
- Any applications for documents, replacement plates, or stickers
Even after submitting these applications, your side-by-side isn’t street-legal except the few particular circumstances above.
Required Safety Equipment
Driving a side-by-side without safety equipment is illegal in California, even in areas designated for these vehicles. Drivers of all ages must wear an approved helmet to drive their UTVs and ATVs. If a helmet is too old, you should get a new one for increased protection.
In addition to approved helmets, a seat belt that includes a shoulder belt is also required. Safety harnesses are an acceptable alternative. Not only is the operator needed to have one, but side-by-sides designed for multiple passengers must have belts or harnesses for passengers too.
As for the UTVs themselves, there are some components the state laws demand all vehicles have.
The most important one is headlamps, which must be turned on 90 minutes after sunset to 90 minutes before sunrise. These lamps must have at least one white light that illuminates the front of the side-by-side. The brightness must reveal a person or another vehicle at least 200 feet away.
Taillamps must be active the same time headlights are switched on. In addition, one must be a red light clearly visible at the UTV’s rear.
The side-by-side’s brake system must be in perfect working condition and strong enough to make the vehicle stop in all environments and circumstances.
All ATVs and UTVs must have an approved muffler or exhaust system without bypasses, cutouts, or similar mechanisms.
As UTVs are often operated near forests or grassy areas, they must have a spark arrester approved by the United States Forest Service.
Passengers Riding UTVs
Californian law prohibits side-by-sides from carrying more than one person unless the vehicle is meant for more than the driver. This law applies to operators in public lands.
To make a side-by-side passenger-legal, it needs a designated seat that can carry them securely. The passenger must also be able to grab the passenger’s handhold while sitting and have the seat belt fastened.
Aftermarket handholds are accepted by the law when making the vehicle passenger-legal.
Side-by-Side Speed Limits
There aren’t many speed limits for UTV or ATV drivers in California, as the state only asks drivers to drive safely and keep others’ well-being in mind. However, riding a side-by-side or an ATV 50 feet near a campsite, crowd, or campground has a speed limit of 15 miles per hour. Keep under this speed unless there are signs saying otherwise.
UTV Age Restrictions
While most side-by-side operators are above 18, younger operators can drive these vehicles if they fulfill one of four main requirements.
The first one states that the child must be accompanied by an adult qualified to be an instructor or supervisor. In addition, this adult must have a safety certificate to ensure the operator’s safety.
Another requirement is that the operator under 18 has passed a safety course under an instructor’s guidance and training.
If the driver has a safety certificate and is under 18, they can drive the UTV.
Finally, the driver must be 16 years or older for solo operation.
Operators under 14 can only drive a side-by-side if they can reach the controls comfortably, which is the responsibility of the parents or guardians.
If a supervisor is needed, the child’s parents or guardian must give their authorization. Otherwise, the supervisor cannot legally protect the operator.
Safety courses for those under 18 are available through the ATV Safety Institute. What’s more, students between the ages of six and 17 are eligible for funding.
For the Sake of Safety
California is one of the least safe states to drive in, which is why prohibiting side-by-sides from the freeways is wise. While there are several exceptions to the law, it’s best only to operate UTVs in designated areas. These places are much safer, and there are fewer restrictions.