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What Is Street Legal?

Published: 12/17/2012 Author: Marc Cesare Category: Buying Guides
Street legal is a frequently used but not often clearly understood term in the small, task-oriented vehicle (STOV) market, which includes low speed vehicles (LSVs), golf cars and utility vehicles. Part of the reason for confusion is that the definition of “street legal” changes depending on where you live. The narrowest definition of street legal is a vehicle that meets the Federal requirements for a Low Speed Vehicle under Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 500 (49 CFR 571.500). These requirements state that the vehicle must have the following:
  • Maximum speed of not more than 40 kilometers per hour (25 miles per hour).
  • Headlamps
  • Front and rear turn signal lamps
  • Taillamps
  • Stop lamps
  • Reflectors on the sides and rear
  • Driver side mirror and a rearview or passenger side mirror
  • Parking brake
  • Windshield
  • VIN
  • Type 1 or Type 2 seat belts
Originally these vehicles were referred to as Neighborhood Electric Vehicles or NEVs, but the federal government changed to terminology to LSVs, a broader term that could include non-electric powered vehicles. However, the vast majority of LSVs are electric. While the regulations vary from state to state, LSVs are typically limited to use on public roads with a maximum speed limit of 25 to 35 mph. However, in nearly all the states, the local municipality must pass an ordinance to allow the vehicles on their streets.
As noted before, where you live can determine what “street-legal” means. The following is a list of the various types of street-legal vehicles that may be driven on public roads depending on local and/or state laws.
  • LSV – As mentioned above these vehicles have a VIN and are purposely built to meet the requirements for an LSV. In many states and locations only LSVs are considered street-legal.
  • Modified golf cars – Some areas allow golf cars to be modified to meet the Federal LSV requirements by adding the various parts and safety features required. However, these vehicles will not have a VIN.
  • Golf cars – Some locations will allow the use of golf cars on public roads. This situation tends to occur in vacation areas or areas that have gated communities or retirement communities.
  • Golf cars within certain areas – South Carolina allows the use of golf cars on public roads but only on low speed limit public roads and within four miles of a person’s home.
  • Utility LSVs – Some electric utility vehicle manufacturers produce utility vehicles that conform to Federal LSV standards so they can be used both off-road and on certain public roads.
  • UTVs, ATVs and mini-trucks – Some states and municipalities allow the use of off-road vehicles such as UTVs, ATVs and mini-trucks on certain public roads. Often they may only allow this for farmers for the purpose of traveling from one part of their farm to another part.
  • MSVs – Ten states have created a vehicle category called Medium Speed Vehicles. These vehicles have a maximum speed that is typically 35 mph to 45 mph. However, there is no such Federal vehicle classification and NHTSA has denied petitions from manufacturers to create such a classification.
While it varies from state to state, many states will require that you register your LSV. You will also need to be a licensed driver and have insurance. In some states or municipalities golf cars do not have to be registered but the owner has to obtain a permit.
So if you are planning on purchasing a vehicle for use on public roads you should check with your state DMV as well as local officials to clearly understand what type of vehicles are “street legal” in your area.
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