Motorcycle Laws, Rights, and Responsibilities in North Carolina

North Carolina motorcycle accidents

Understanding liability after a North Carolina motorcycle accident can help you receive legal compensation

A motorcycle accident can be devastating, and some drivers and law enforcement officers will assume that the motorcyclist is always in the wrong. But that’s not necessarily true. In North Carolina, who’s at fault for an accident makes a difference between total, some, and no financial recovery.

There are nearly 200,000 registered motorcycles in North Carolina. North Carolina has short, mild winters, colorful autumns and beautiful summers, which makes it a highly appealing state for motorcyclists.

But riding a motorcycle is riskier than driving a car, regardless of how careful or experienced you are.

The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) reported that there were 141 motorcyclist fatalities in 2017 in North Carolina, which was down 11% from 2016. In 2018, there were 168 fatalities and 2,940 injuries in the Tarheel State, which is down 20.9% and 6.2%, respectively, from 2017.

Nationwide, numbers of motorcyclist fatalities and injuries don’t show much change over the past several years.

North Carolina motorcycle accidents statistics

Source: Insurance Information Institute

Facing facts

  • The federal government estimates that the number of deaths on motorcycles is approximately 27 times the number of car occupants.
  • Motorcycle deaths accounted for 14% of all motor vehicle crash deaths in 2018.
  • 28% of motorcyclist fatalities in 2018 were younger than 30.
  • 91% of motorcyclists killed in 2018 were male.
  • 26% of motorcyclist fatalities in 2018 involved motorcycle drivers with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or higher. For single-vehicle crashes, this rose to 39%.
  • Nearly half (46%) of motorcyclists killed at night in 2018 had a BAC higher than the legal limit.

Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

The truth is that if you’re injured in a North Carolina motorcycle crash, there’s only 1 statistic that matters: you.

Recovering damages after a motorcycle accident

“Damages” are the financial compensation owed to a plaintiff after an injury. If you were injured in a motorcycle wreck, you can recover money to cover these costs:

  • Medical treatment, including hospital and doctor visits, medication, surgeries or other procedures, etc.
  • Lost wages, past and future, for time off from work as a result of the injury
  • Compensation for loss of consortium and loss of ability to enjoy the activities of daily life
  • Pain and suffering, or emotional distress
  • Property damage
  • Wrongful death, if you lost a loved one in a motorcycle accident

Liability in a North Carolina motorcycle crash

If you’ve been in a motorcycle crash, you’re probably wondering who’s going to pay for your medical treatment, damaged property, and other expenses.

North Carolina contributory negligence standard

North Carolina is among just a few states that follow a contributory negligence standard of law.

That means if you were even 1% liable for an accident, the insurance company isn’t legally obligated to pay for your injuries. In many states, even if the injured person is found to be partially at fault for an accident, they can still recover some damages but the damage amount would be reduced according to their percentage at fault. Not so in North Carolina, much to the surprise of accident victims.

For this reason, motorcycle bias can be especially damaging in North Carolina.

Most vehicle crashes are the result of someone’s negligence. In order to prove negligence, your claim must include these elements:

  1. Another driver had a duty of care. A driver has a duty of care toward any other road user. In other words, you’re required to be careful not to cause harm to any other driver, motorcyclists, pedestrian, or bicyclist on the road.
  2. The driver breached the duty. The reason why a driver “didn’t see” a motorcyclist could suggest that the person wasn’t exercising their duty of care.
  3. You were injured. A personal injury claim is always based on the actual cost of treatment for your injuries. If your accident didn’t result in an injury that requires medical treatment (in other words, didn’t cost you anything), then you won’t recover damages for the physical injury.
  4. Your injury was caused by the other driver. Causation is the key to a negligence claim. The other driver might be claiming that you caused the accident, or that it happened some other way that wasn’t their fault. The plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant caused the accident. A “preponderance” means the court must be convinced that it’s more probable than not that the defendant caused the accident.

What is motorcyclist bias?

Here’s where a motorcyclist sometimes has to work harder for legal recovery than other drivers.

Like every group of people, there are going to be some motorcyclists who take risks — speeding, weaving through traffic, lane splitting or other irresponsible driving, for example. But most motorcyclists follow the rules of the road, drive responsibly, and are courteous of other road users.

But law enforcement, judges and juries, other drivers, and even witnesses sometimes perceive an accident as being the motorcyclist’s fault because of preconceived stigmas about bikers. This bias could affect the outcome of your claim in a few ways:

  • Presumption of liability. Since motorcyclists face a stereotype that they’re reckless on the road, police officers, insurance adjusters, and a jury will often assume that the motorcyclist is at least partially to blame.
  • Low settlement offer. An insurance adjuster will often offer a motorcyclist a lowball settlement that doesn’t cover the extent of their injuries.
  • Reduced damage award. In a jury trial, a motorcyclist might receive a smaller damage award compared to a car accident victim for similar injuries because the jury members have an implicit bias against the rider.

If you’ve been in an accident as a car driver, you might have to explain how the crash occurred and what caused it. But there’s no presumption that you were driving recklessly unless evidence from the scene shows that you were.

If you were in an accident as a motorcyclist, however, you might automatically be put on the defensive and be presumed to have been driving recklessly, unless the evidence can show that you weren’t.

See the difference?

It’s similar to the legal concept of presumption of innocence. Most of us have seen enough legal dramas on TV to know that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty in a criminal case. Shouldn’t it be the same at the scene of an accident?

In a motor vehicle accident, there’s usually no innocent or guilty. Civil (non-criminal) lawsuits rely on the principle of liability, or fault. The reasonable person standard means that a driver’s actions were reasonable based on what the average person would do in that situation.

How to avoid motorcycle bias

Your behavior can’t always influence someone’s personal biases. But there are a few ways that you might be able to demonstrate that you’re a responsible, caring motorcyclist — and that might help your case. Here are 3 tips:

  1. Be kind. If you’ve been involved in a collision, show concern for the other driver’s condition. Don’t make accusations of fault, and be courteous. You shouldn’t apologize because an apology can come across as an admission of fault, but you can be concerned without being apologetic. If you’re in court and the other driver is on the stand as a witness, those first moments after an accident and their first impressions of your demeanor can make a big difference in their testimony.
  2. Wear a helmet. Every time. For one thing, it’s the law in North Carolina. But wearing a helmet also demonstrates that you’re concerned for your own safety, and that you’re aware of rules and best practices for motorcycling.
  3. Drive safely. A witness can testify that they saw you driving carefully, being respectful of other motorists, and traveling at a safe speed. That can help your case and demonstrate that you’re responsible and less likely to have caused an accident than someone who was speeding, weaving, or being otherwise unsafe.

Common causes of motorcycle accidents

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says most collisions between a motorcycle and another vehicle happen at intersections. Often, it’s because the car driver didn’t see the motorcyclist. Drivers are more likely to be looking for other cars and trucks on the road and might not be as attuned to looking for the smaller physical profile of a motorcycle.

Some car drivers negligently cause motorcycle accidents by:

  • Lane sharing with a motorcycle or attempting to pass too close
  • Failing to yield right of way to the motorcyclist when the road rules would require it
  • Tailgating
  • Driving in a deliberately aggressive way

These are some of the major causes of motorcycle accidents:

Unsafe lane changes Car drivers often fail to check their blind spot when changing lanes, which can result in sideswiping an unsuspecting motorcyclist.
Speeding Speeding can be either on the part of the motorcyclist or a car driver. It’s a major cause of motor vehicle accidents because speeding decreases the chance that a driver will see and react to other vehicles or obstacles in the amount of time required to prevent a collision.
Driving under the influence (DUI) Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs impairs the driver’s ability to operate a vehicle safely.
Lane splitting This is the practice of riding a motorcycle in between 2 lanes of traffic. It’s especially dangerous for an inexperienced motorcyclist. Many states prohibit lane splitting. In North Carolina, lane splitting is not expressly banned.

North Carolina allows motorcycles to share a lane, but it is illegal for a motorcycle to pass a vehicle on the right.
Sudden stopping Any sudden stop can be dangerous to a motorcyclist, whether they’re the vehicle that needs to stop and they’re rear-ended by a car or they’re behind a car that stops abruptly.
Inexperience A lot of motorcycle accidents happen because the motorcyclist misjudged the distance or speed of an oncoming car or made a right-of-way error.
Left-turn accidents A car making a left-hand turn is the single most dangerous situation for a motorcyclist. Nearly half of all motorcycle/car accidents happen in this situation at an intersection.

Often, it’s because the motorcycle proceeds straight through the intersection or attempts to pass or overtake the car.
Dangerous road conditions Poor signs or signals, pavement cracks or holes, debris, and other conditions can contribute to a motorcycle accident.
Motorcycle defects Although a defect in a motorcycle’s manufacturing or maintenance can have catastrophic effects, motorcycle accidents from defective vehicles are less common than other kinds of accidents.

North Carolina motorcycle laws

A North Carolina motorcycle driver must have a motorcycle learner permit or endorsement on their provisional, regular, or commercial driver license.

  • Learner permit: You must hold a full provisional, regular, or commercial driver license and pass a motorcycle knowledge test, road sign identification, and vision test in order to apply for a motorcycle learner permit. If the motorcyclist is less than 19 years old, they must also have written consent of their parent or guardian and complete a safety course. A motorcycle learner permit is valid for 1 year and can be renewed for an additional 6-month period.
  • Motorcycle endorsement: You must have a full provisional, regular, or commercial driver license and pass the motorcycle knowledge test and off-street motorcycle skills test in order to apply for an endorsement.

North Carolina requires that every motorcycle rider — both the operator and passenger — must wear a helmet that meets federal DOT safety standards.

Enjuris tip: It’s your responsibility to know the road rules and motorcycle regulations. The North Carolina Department of Transportation offers this handbook with information for motorcyclists.

Is lane-splitting legal?

As mentioned above, lane-splitting is legal in North Carolina with the exception of passing on the right.

Even though it’s legal, it can still be dangerous.

Here are some ways to stay safe if you’re lane-splitting:

  • Be aware of the cars around you on all sides.
  • Return to your correct lane if traffic resumes speed and is moving more than 30 miles per hour.
  • Be sure you have your headlights on and are wearing reflective clothing if you’re riding after dark.
  • Only lane-split if both lanes are moving at the same speed. If 1 lane is moving faster, cars in the slower lane are likely to try to move into the faster lane, which raises your likelihood of being hit.
  • Be alert if you’re in a car’s blind spot.
  • Don’t speed past slow or stopped cars — only travel at a speed that’s slightly faster than the rest of the traffic.
  • Don’t pass between cars that are too close together.

Common motorcycle injuries

Car accidents can result in serious injuries. But the frame of a car, airbags, and other safety features can help protect occupants in a crash. When you’re on a motorcycle, there’s nothing between you and the other vehicles or the open road. That’s why motorcycle accidents often result in serious injury.

Some of the most common motorcycle injuries include:

  • Road rash. Road rash injuries are scrapes or abrasions that happen as parts of the body are dragged along the road surface. Often, this affects a motorcyclist’s arms, legs, hips and shoulders.
  • Head trauma. A blow to the head can cause a fractured skull, concussion, or traumatic brain injury (TBI).
  • Burns. Motorcycle engine parts can be very hot, and contact can cause 2nd- or 3rd-degree burns.
  • Neck and spine injuries. Herniated discs, paralysis, cracked vertebrae, or death can be the result of a motorcycle-related neck or spine injury.
  • Soft tissue injuries. Sprains, strains, or other injuries to muscles, tendons or ligaments can cause serious and ongoing pain.
  • Fractures. A fracture is one of the most common injuries, as bones can break from impact with another vehicle or the road.
  • Internal injuries. Any injury to the organs (like lungs, spleen, kidneys, intestines, etc.) can result in bleeding or other complications.

Safety tips for protecting yourself on a motorcycle

Did you know that motorcyclists wear leather for safety, not just style?

Leather might help to achieve the “biker look,” but wearing leathers originated as a safety precaution for motorcyclists. Leather provides better protection against road rash and other injuries than regular clothes do. Some leather apparel for motorcyclists is specifically designed for summer wear so it’s not too hot.

Safety goggles or other eye protection, protective gloves and durable footwear or boots can all help prevent motorcyclists from being as seriously injured if they’re in an accident.

What to do after a North Carolina motorcycle accident

If you’re in a motorcycle accident, you should follow the same steps as you would for a regular car accident, including calling police and taking information from other drivers and witnesses.

The next step is to call a lawyer. Because of the more complicated issues associated with a motorcycle accident such as unfair bias, you might have a hard time reaching financial recovery on your own.

Your lawyer will consult experts like accident reconstruction professionals and others to help you avoid fault for the accident in order to recover more damages. Your lawyer can also participate in negotiations with the insurance in order to maximize your recovery settlement.

The Enjuris law firm directory is a no-cost resource that can help you to find a North Carolina motorcycle accident lawyer near you who will work for you toward full recovery.


Free personal injury guides for download to print or save. View all downloads.

Tell your story:
Tell your story - What would you want others to know? Tell us what happened in your accident, and how life has changed for you.

Find an attorney:
Search our directory for personal injury law firms.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.