Cars and motorcycles are clearly street-legal machines – but what about scooters? Like other obscure, alternative forms of low-cost transportation – such as go-karts, for instance – the legality of scooters is a tricky topic. With the federal government remaining mum on the issue, it has been left to each state to determine when, where, and who can operate scooters on public roadways.
This piecemeal approach means that the legality of scooters differs by state. As of this writing, most states allow scooters to drive on public roads. There are plenty of caveats to this, however.
We’ll get more into all this in a moment. First, let’s clarify what the law defines as a scooter.
What is a Scooter?
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The term ‘scooter’ generally refers to any type of low-power, a two-wheel motorbike that utilizes an automatic transmission, step-through floor, and a more carlike seating position. Small wheels and modest engines – usually between 50cc and 250cc, though models equipped with larger engines do exist – are also part of the usual scooter formula.
Perhaps their most defining attribute is the step-through floorplan. Scooters hide their small engines over the rear wheels; riders essentially sit on top of the engine in an upright position, as if they were sitting at their dinner table. Their feet rest on a flat floor directly aft of the front wheel. Throttle and brakes are managed via handlebar controls.
A nationwide legal standard on what constitutes a scooter is yet to be written, so you’ll want to check with your DMV for local rules and regulations.
What About Ride-Share Scooters?
A few years ago, electric ride-share scooters made a splash in cities. These runabouts are much more akin to your old Razor foot-powered scooter than the larger, more powerful scooters discussed above. You ride these scooters standing up and holding the handlebars for stability; you adjust the throttle via hand controls, with a top speed usually capping out at about 15 mph.
The good news about these electric scooters is that they don’t require registration, special licensing, or any other red tape prohibiting people from hopping on and taking one for a spin – hence the reason for their sudden popularity as shared-mobility options.
States have cracked down on the laws regulating the use of these scooters on sidewalks and roadways, so you’ll want to do your homework before setting out on one. We recommend the comprehensive resource put together by Unagi.
Is a Scooter a Moped?
No. The law defines mopeds as motorized bicycles, a term most state laws interpret as two- or three-wheel machines that feature bicycle pedals. These motorized bikes – the term ‘moped’ is in fact a portmanteau of ‘motor’ and ‘pedals’ – exclusively use automatic transmissions and feature engines smaller than 50cc. Top speeds typically cannot exceed 30 mph.
Unlike scooters or motorcycles, mopeds may or may not need to be separately registered with the DMV and you typically don’t need a special license or endorsement to operate one. However, all laws vary by state, so consult your local DMV to learn the rules governing your jurisdiction.
With electric mopeds becoming more popular as urban transportation, the federal government released legislation clarifying what constitutes an electric moped and the qualifiers that would make it street legal. You will still want to look into the legislation, of course.1 However, be aware that whether an electric bike can be legally operated on public roads remains under the purview of state governments. We recommend checking out online to find more details on state rulings around electric bikes and mopeds.2
What are the Differences Between a Motorcycle and a Scooter?
Motorcycles may initially seem similar to a scooter, but there’s a number of key differentiators between them. Perhaps the most significant is their respective designs. While scooters have the step-through floorplan, motorcycles require the rider to sit in a straddling position, with their feet resting on pegs on either side of the engine.
Motorcycles are also far more powerful than even the fastest factory scooters. The cheapest, slowest motorcycles can hit at least 50 mph; the fastest can touch 200 mph. Motorcycles of all stripes have no issue keeping up with the pace of traffic in any environment, be it the open highway or congested city streets.
As noted above, scooters put all the necessary controls on the handlebars. Motorcycles differ by putting the feet to use as well, requiring riders to engage the back brake and the shifter with foot controls. Throttle, clutch – most motorcycles use a manual transmission – and the front brakes are worked with the hands.
Legally, the differences between motorcycles and scooters are more obscure. Motorcycles are entirely street legal in all states. Scooters, which aren’t fully street legal anywhere, may be classified in some states as motorcycles despite the disparity in performance and operation. In other states, scooters get treated more like bicycles. In yet other states engine size becomes the key factor in determining how scooters are classified. See your local DMV for details.
Do I Need a Motorcycle Endorsement to Ride My Scooter?
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Most states require scooter operators to obtain a motorcycle endorsement, a process that typically entails taking a motorcycle riding course and passing a written test focused on operating a motorcycle.
However, this isn’t always the case. Delaware, for instance, doesn’t require even a driver’s license to operate a scooter – but they also don’t allow scooters on any public roads, even those with speed limits of 25 mph or less. Connecticut, which allows scooters on most public roads, only requires a driver’s license.
So, Are Scooters Legal?
The legality of scooters boils down to where you live. In some places, scooters can’t be driven on the roads whatsoever, be they the Razor-style ride-share scooters or 250-cc gas-powered scooters. In other states, you can go where you please so long as you stay on the shoulder and yield to faster traffic.
The best thing you can do is check with your local DMV and see what the scooter laws are in your state. If you’re lucky, you won’t have any issue using a scooter for scuttling around town in a small, fun, and environmentally friendly way. And when you’re ready to buy that new scooter, check out our article on the best scooters.
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.
- State Electric Bicycle Laws: A Legislative Primer. NCSL.org. Accessed 23 Sept 2021.
- SCOOTER AND MOTORCYCLE LAWS BY STATE. Genuinescooters.com. Accessed 23 Sept 2021.