If you’re thinking about buying one, you might be wondering if go karts are street legal. You’ve ridden them in fairs and have seen them racing on the track. Maybe their teeny size, loud noises, and riotous speed and handling have you pining for one. But before you cough up the cash for a go-kart, whether they’re street legal and where you can legally ride them are important considerations.
It’s an easy question with some complicated answers. To oversimplify matters, whether your go-kart is street legal comes down to its particular specifications – including top speed, weight, equipment, and powertrain – as well as where you live.
We’re going to dive into the various legal challenges of registering your go-kart in a moment, but first, we need to touch base on what exactly qualifies as a go-kart. They come in many shapes and sizes, and their prices can range from the cost of a cheap bicycle to the cost of an average car (or more). To get the lowdown on karts, read on.
Types of Go-Karts
Wikipedia defines a go-kart as any type of open-wheel car or quadracycle.1 If that seems broad, you’re right. The karts at your local fair, the Polaris off-road side-by-side your neighbor tows to the mountains every weekend, and the miniature open-wheel racers aspiring NASCAR drivers use for training all come under the go-kart umbrella.2
All go-karts share a few common components: they are small, lack apertures such as windows and doors, and generally top out at around 40 mph. Most models use two-stroke gas engines or an electric powertrain.
From there, the different types of go-karts cluster into various niches, each with a narrow focus on a specific range of capabilities. Racing karts are made for road-course racing; dirt-oval karts for, well, dirt ovals; off-road karts for trails. The full list is exhaustive.
What Is Not a Go-Kart?
ATVs, golf carts, and lawn mowers could fit the basic criteria used to define a go-kart, but they aren’t considered as such for casual or legal discussion. Excluding them from the go-kart classification is their construction, design, and performance, among other things.
Of the three aforementioned machines, ATVs, or all-terrain vehicles, cause the most confusion, due to their similarity to the UTV (which we’ll get into in a moment). Many use the terms interchangeably, as both can feature four-wheel drive and are adept at scaling rough terrain.
The similarities end there, though. With an ATV, you typically ride atop the vehicle and steer with handlebars. The UTV is more like a go-kart: you sit in the vehicle and control it with a steering wheel.3
While four-seater off-roaders and even dune buggies might qualify as UTVs, ATVs are more akin to four-wheeled motorcycles than anything else and are almost never street legal.4
Legal Classifications of Go-Karts
Because go-karts can be so wildly different from one to the next, the government has a few different classifications they use across the go-kart spectrum. The four major classifications in use are low-speed vehicle (LSV), utility vehicle (UTV), off-road vehicle (ORV), and off-highway vehicle (OHV).
Let’s look at each of these classifications separately:
Low-Speed Vehicle (LSV)
For something to be classified as a low-speed vehicle, it must meet the following criteria:
- Four wheels
- Electric powertrain
- Maximum gross vehicle weight rating of 3,000 pounds
- Top speed of 25 mph or less
If your go-kart meets all these requirements, it can be classified as an LSV. That’s a good thing because LSVs are generally street-legal in nearly all fifty states – with the catch that they can only be driven on roads where the posted speed limit is 35 mph or less.
Another catch: because they can be driven on certain public roadways, LSVs must be fitted with certain safety equipment. Signal indicators, three-point seatbelts, headlights, and a rearview mirror are among the required equipment. More advanced features such as airbags are not found on these vehicles for cost, packaging, and practicality reasons.
Because of their limited safety features and oftentimes-nonexistent doors and windows, LSVs can be more dangerous than indicated by their low speeds and easy operation. In fact, the IIHS noted in 2010 that LSVs should not be considered viable alternatives to a traditional automobile even on low-speed roads or in urban areas.5
Utility Vehicle (UTV)
Generally, UTVs are small, off-road vehicles with four-wheel drive and equipped with a small utility bed – hence the name – or other functional storage or work space. They may also have room for passengers, depending on the size and specification of the particular UTV.
If that sounds very different than a go-kart, remember that the term go-kart is almost absurdly broad. Off-road go-karts and buggies would classify as UTVs, ORVs, or OHVs rather than LSVs. For some examples of dirt-loving karts, see our list of the best off-road go-karts.
The criteria for UTVs are as follows:
- Top speed of less than 25 mph
- Less than 80 inches wide
- Gross vehicle weight rating of less than 4,000 pounds
- Able to carry 350 pounds of cargo
If you want to drive your UTV on public roads, you’ll need to consult your state and local laws, as the legality of this differs from state to state. To streamline this exercise, Polaris has created an excellent guide for quickly finding the information pertaining to your state.6
Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) and Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV)
These designations encompass any vehicle that is not street legal and is specifically designed for the backcountry. These definitions are broad enough to include vehicles such as hovercraft and dirt bikes. These terms are generally interchangeable.
If your go-kart does not qualify as a UTV but does fit the definition of an ORV or OHV, it is almost certainly not street legal.
All these acronyms, standards, and laws get confusing fast, but there are five major takeaways we want to highlight:
- LSVs are low-speed electric vehicles with limited use on public roads.
- UTVs are low-speed, off-road vehicles with room for passengers and cargo. They are street legal in certain states. This is the typical classification of off-road go-karts.
- ATVs and UTVs are not the same; the former is steered with handlebars and the latter with a steering wheel. ATVs are not go-karts and are almost never street legal.
- All UTVs are ORVs/OHVs, but not all OHVs/ORVs are UTVs.
- ORVs and aOHVs that don’t qualify as UTVs are not street legal.
Go-karts come in many shapes and sizes, but the only ones legal to drive on public roads in all states are those that qualify as an LSV. UTVs may qualify depending on your state. Your gas-powered racing kart isn’t street legal anywhere, however.
Before you venture on public roads with your kart, check the laws in your state governing their usage. After all, who wants to get a ticket in their homemade go-kart on its maiden voyage out of the garage?
Ride Digest uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
- Wikipedia. Go-kart. Wikipedia.org. Updated April 9, 2021. Accessed April 20, 2021.
- Patel J. A Breakdown of All the Major Types of Car Racing. Themanual.com. Published March 4, 2021. Accessed April 20, 2021.
- Peter K. ATV vs. UTV: Which Is More Fun and Which Is Right for You? Offroadingpro.com. Accessed April 20, 2021.
- Go Kart Guide. Go-Kart vs ATV: Are They the Same? Gokartguide.com. Accessed April 20, 2021.
- IIHS. Low-speed vehicles and minitrucks shouldn’t share busy public roads with regular traffic. Iihs.org. Published May 20, 2010. Accessed April 20, 2021.
- Polaris. ATV/Side-by-Side UTV Laws by State. Polaris.com. Published February 24, 2020. Accessed April 20, 2021.