So you want to turn your dirt bike into a street legal thrill ride or a fuel-sipping commuter? If this is what you desire, then you will have to do some work first!
Bringing an off-road only bike into compliance with federal and state road use laws is an involved process which requires the bike’s owner to know many rules and regulations – and have some mechanical know-how or have a good moto mechanic on hand. There are numerous bureaucratic hurdles to jump through and several parts and accessories which will need to be added to the bike for this to be possible. This is no evening project.
Many of the laws governing what is and what is not a street legal vehicle are federally mandated and enforced by state and local authorities. Having an understanding of them is essential in certifying a motorcycle for legal use on the roads and highways of the United States of America. This is not all there is to know, though, as each state is allowed to enact its own regulations as to what is acceptable for use within its borders. However, most of these local rules are merely more stringent additions to the federal statutes.
Note: If you are attempting to complete this procedure to turn an off-road use only motorcycle to street legal in the state of California, stop now; it is not possible at this time thanks to a re-interpretation of state law in 2004.
The U.S. government has set up what is called "The Federal Minimum Requirement" for on-road motorcycles to make it easy to see the many requirements in one list since the details of many are buried within several sections of U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) regulations. Any motorcycle, whether born in a factory or created in a workshop, must follow the guidelines below to be considered legal for operation on state and federal roadways.
- DOT approved headlight with high and low beam function
- Headlight indicator light visible to the operator to show when the high beam is operating
- Battery-powered, DOT approved tail light and brake light (with a switch for both front and rear controls) which must operate for a minimum of 20 minutes with only battery power
- DOT approved turn signals for motorcycles manufactured after January 1, 1973 (most states mandate this, but some do not)
- Rearview mirror (usually one, but some states require two)
- Horn (some states mandate an electric horn)
- DOT approved tires installed
- Fuel tank should be DOT approved (The FMVSS specifies steel, but almost all states do not enforce this, so it will not be covered)
As is indicated by the notes in the list above, states have some leeway in the application of these requirements. For instance, there are states which require speedometers and odometers, while others make no mention of these. To be sure of what each specific state requires, it is necessary to contact the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or Department of Transportation (DOT) for comprehensive and up-to-date list.
For this guide, we will cover the following topics to help you get started in making your dirt bike street legal:
- Electrical System Upgrades
- Tail/Brake Light
- Turn Signals
- Rearview Mirror(s)
- Wheels and Tires
- License Plate Bracket
- Conversion Packages
- The Process
- Gather Documentation
- Alter the Bike
Before You Start
Before beginning this section, ensure that the state in which the vehicle is to be titled requires these parts and accessories and that the items here meet the specifications contained in local laws and regulations. Otherwise, it is easily possible to blow through a budget on items which are not needed or are not legal and still end up without a street legal bike.Each of the areas of an off-road motorcycle which need to be addressed is based on The Federal Minimum Requirement guidelines and some of the more common state laws. Since there is so much variation, these are divided into individual sections as some may be ignored depending on where the bike is to be titled.
Electrical System Upgrades
Since so many of these new items are powered, the conversion to a street legal bike may require an electrical system upgrade. Check the bike’s service manual to see how the existing electrical components are wired, if present. In most cases, a stator upgrade is a good idea. Some who complete this conversion will actually install a charging system from a street-going version of the off-road bike being changed; this is not always possible, though, as not all manufacturers use the same engine in both road an off-road bikes. Searching the Internet for others who have made the change is one way to address and solve this issue.
A working headlight with the ability to switch between low and high beams is considered to be required in all states. It MUST be DOT approved or it will not satisfy this statute. There is some confusion with this, though, as the application of the low/high switching part of this rule seems to vary in some areas. However, it is always a good idea to have the ability to use a high beam; it applies directly to safety. The headlight does not have to run off of a battery, but since the rear brake does, it makes sense to hook up to it here. Both the low/high beam switch and the high beam indicator must be visible from the rider’s seated position and the switch should be within easy reach.
A DOT approved tail light with brake light function which runs from a mounted battery is required in all states for a motorcycle to be considered road legal. Additionally, the battery must be capable of powering the brake light (tail light with at least one brake engaged) for a minimum of 20 minutes. This is far easier to achieve now that LEDs are popular thanks to their limited power draw. The tail light must be on any time the bike is running. And, a switch to activate the brake light when using the brakes must be installed at both the handlebar lever and the brake pedal.
In some states, turn indicators are optional, but others require them to be in place, front and rear, and function properly. Where they are necessary, there are often also rules about where the signals must be installed on the bike and how they should be placed relative to the headlight and tail light. The switch for these should be placed on the left hand grip – for easiest operation without needing to let go of the throttle – and visible from the rider’s position. These should be DOT approved, but such systems can be difficult to locate outside of a conversion ‘package’, so it is often possible to slip by with a non-DOT set which still functions very well.
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Most states have very little to say about the exhaust (except California, of course) beyond that it be in good shape, meet sound regulations, and that it not smoke overly much. To be safe, however, and if it can be found, an EPA approved exhaust is the safest route to take. Failing that, at least ensure that the muffler or system is not very loud – a sure fail – and that it is clean and dent-free. The more ‘natural’ and ‘street’ the exhaust appears, the more likely it is to be considered acceptable. Usually, all that will need to be replaced is the silencer, so a slip-on is a quick and inexpensive way to take care of this area of the bike.
At least one rearview mirror is required for a dirt bike to be allowed to be ridden on the street. Some states will require two, though. Mirrors which will work for dirt bikes are readily available in a large variety of designs. The most difficult part here is figuring out where to place the mirror(s) for the best rear view.
Adding a horn is another simple, but absolutely necessary, change which must be completed to put a dirt bike on the street legally. Many states require a horn to be electric, but others are perfectly fine with a squeeze-type bicycle horn. Considering safety of the rider, though, how loud the horn is when the bike is under way is the most important consideration. Achieving this is far easier with an electric unit.
Wheels and Tires
DOT motorcycle tires are a basic requirement for a street-going motorcycle no matter how it was built or who built it. The wheels the bike is to use on the road make an enormous difference in which tires are used, though. If the bike is to be converted into a ‘dual sport’ bike, which will maintain much of the bike’s dirt-worthiness, the stock wheels, or a similar sized set, is perfectly acceptable, so long as DOT approved tires are spooned onto them.
If the idea is to build a supermoto-style bike for the road, the wheels, tires and braking system will all require upgrading. Sportbike sized wheels, larger disc rotors and DOT approved street tires are the most common route to achieving this. Internet forums have extensive information on best practices for this conversion as it is very common, though not all of the bikes done in this way are street legal.
Very few states have a requirement for speedometer, but knowing the bike’s speed on the road seems like important knowledge. It is a good idea to have some way to determine speed and distance. Aftermarket speedometers are offered in many types and styles; they are also fairly easy to install, for the most part. Many GPS units are capable of this task as well, and the enduro aftermarket has a large choice of electronic instruments which are made specifically for determining speed and distance.
A tachometer is not required in any state. Many modern, road-going motorcycles made today leave their factories without a tachometer. This is personal choice, though some of the electronic accessories referenced above will also have a tach feature.
License Plate Bracket
Displaying a license plate once the bike has been titled and made ready for the road is required. The bracket to hold the plate is merely a necessary part of ensuring the license plate can be seen. Many states have their own laws about how to display a plate, so check with the DMV to be sure the newly acquired license plate is installed in a way which will not bring unwanted attention from law enforcement.
License Plate Bracket
A functioning kickstand is not a requirement based on the federal standards. It is simply an often forgotten component which should be added to any dirt bike destined for street use, plain and simple. There are no dirt bike stands awaiting anyone at the grocery store.
Another area of the change from dirt to street which is often overlooked is gearing. There are no legal requirements here, but there are use issues. Off-road bikes are geared for lower speeds than road-going motorcycles. So, to work correctly and efficiently on the street, a dirt bike will require its gear ratios altered appropriately. Again, Internet forums can assist with advice on this since there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.
One of the easiest ways to complete the changeover is to purchase a package which contains most of the items above in one all-inclusive kit. There are only a few of these available, however, and they are getting harder and harder to find. Most kits will include all of the mandated electrical items along with a few optional pieces, but minus the tires. Always check to be sure of what is included and compare it to what is needed in the state where the title application will be processed. Take note, even with a kit purchase, some other parts may be required.
Completing the changeover from a dirt bike to a full road legal motorcycle is a long process which involves knowing the information above and then acting on it. This will take some dedication and serious research into the various rules, regulations and needed parts and accessories. Much of that will be dependent on the state in which the conversion is to be completed, so a detailed, step-by-step that fits everyone’s situation is essentially impossible. However, the overall chain of events is simple enough to understand.
The most important part of the process is to be certain that it is achievable. The first place to look is the local DMV – either in person or online. Each state’s transportation authority will have information on what is needed to legally make a dirt bike into a street machine if they allow it. Get this before even beginning to do anything as it may lead to the realization that there is no way to put a license plate on the dirt bike which is being readied.
Of course, the Internet is another fine place to do research, but it can also be full of inaccurate and misleading information – be careful. There are many people who have succeeded in getting a plate, and some of them have detailed their process online. Make use of that knowledge, but check the information discovered there with other resources and at the DMV first to verify that what was done by others is valid and will apply.
Next, investigate the parts and accessories called for in the state and federal regulations to be sure that the bike which is to be converted actually has parts available for it. Many older models will not. Find everything that is required and check availability. If it is not possible to get the items, the conversion will not be possible.
Several states require many different documents in order to verify the bike, what has been done to it, and whether it meets the federal and state standards. Some require the motorcycle’s MCO (Manufacturer’s Certificate of Origin; also known as MSO – Manufacturer’s Statement of Origin), while others are perfectly fine with an old title. The research step above should have given enough data to figure out exactly which documentation is necessary. Gather it, make sure it is identical to what the state wants, and then keep it all together for when it is time to apply for the street title.
Alter the Bike
Once it is known which parts of the dirt bike will need to be upgraded or added to, the next step is to do it. Either get wrenching on it at home or have a qualified, licensed mechanic perform the work. Some states will require a mechanic to sign off on the modifications, so many of those shops will want to do the work themselves (understandable given the legal ramifications if something goes wrong).
Once the work is done, go back over the federal and state regulations and check each new part or accessory for compliance.
The goal of this entire operation is to gain approval from the state DMV to operate what was once an off-road only bike on the streets. To achieve this, large portions – if not all – of the work and alterations discussed above will need to be completed. Once this is done, and you have all of the paperwork which the state requires filled out and signed, it is time to go to the DMV and get the plate.
Should the first attempt not succeed, do not give up. Take what was learned in the first trip, make any necessary changes and then try again. In some areas with multiple DMV offices available, traveling to a different location for the next go may help as certain state employees may be more knowledgeable about the rules and regulations.
The first thing anyone who wishes to convert a dirt bike to street use should know is that this process is becoming more and more difficult in all states. As regulations are tightened and rules are streamlined, such ‘special’ licensing conditions are facing serious scrutiny. As the requirements are strengthened, finding parts and being able to afford the expense present high barriers. In some states, such as California, it is all but impossible to succeed.
Even if everything is done correctly, the bike meets every possible safety guideline, and all the paperwork is in order, the DMV may not grant their approval. Successfully gaining a street legal title for a bike which was designed to be ridden off-road is one of the more difficult licensing tasks to accomplish; even harder than registering a kit vehicle or a custom in some states. It seems that those who write the rules do so in such a way to make the whole thing as expensive, time consuming and bureaucratic as possible – not entirely true, but it certainly can feel like that when in the midst of this process.
You should only attempt this conversion if you are dedicated to having your dirt bike on the road legally. Otherwise, you will end up wasting time, money and effort for very little return. Most will tell you that if you want a dirt bike for the street, just buy a dual-sport. For some, though, that is not enough. If you are truly determined to be able to ride your dirt bike to work so that you can go play afterwards, or if you simply want to be able to ride on the paved roads between your personal favorite off-road riding areas, you now have a place to begin converting your off-road machine to a street legal motorcycle. Get busy figuring out how to do it where you live, and Good Luck!
Written By: JC Current