The law can be a fickle mistress: sometimes you think you know what she wants, sometimes you don’t, but guessing wrong can land you in hot water. That about sums up Texas’ new law regarding handholds and footrests on motorcycles.
As you may know, it is against the law in Texas for a motorcycle designed to carry one person to carry two persons. As of January 1, 2015, any motorcycle designed to carry two people must be equipped with handholds and footrests for the passenger. The law, known as “Malorie’s Law,”* is named for a college student who was killed as a passenger on her boyfriend’s motorcycle in 2010.
The law obviously and admirably is meant to increase the safety of motorcycle passengers, which I don’t think anyone can argue with. Since most two-passenger motorcycles come equipped with footpegs and straps for passengers, it’s not a problem. Likewise, most bikes that, for whatever reason, don’t have passenger footpegs can easily add them.
But the handhold requirement has a lot of people stymied, frustrated and even angry. Questions include: Do the handles on the saddlebag count as a handhold? Does the driver’s backrest count as a handhold? Does a passenger handhold even matter if a motorcycle crashes?
What the Law Says Exactly
Section 547.617 of the Texas Transportation Code states: “MOTORCYCLE FOOTRESTS AND HANDHOLDS REQUIRED. A motorcycle that is designed to carry more than one person must be equipped with footrests and handholds for use by the passenger.” (Violation of this law is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $500).
However, no definition of “handhold” is provided. Which means we don’t know what it should look like. Do a Google Image search for “motorcycle passenger handhold” and you’ll find a wide range of possibilities, from the familiar and simple strap across the seat, to after-market fuel tank handholds for sport bikes.
Which of these count as legal handholds and which don’t? It’s probably safe to say that something that comes from the manufacturer as stock probably passes. Your belt or something else you attach to yourself probably doesn’t. Could you attach a piece of rope to your frame and call it a handhold? You could argue that it does in court (and probably win), since the definition of “handhold” is so vague. However, the bottom line is the decision whether to ticket a motorcyclist and passenger for violating this law is going to be up to the discretion of the policeman or patrolman who stops you.
New Law or No Law, Safety is Still About Discretion
I have it on good authority from a motorcycle patrolman friend that officers aren’t going to ticket someone on the back of a two-person bike whose feet are not dangling and who is holding on tight to the driver (do “love handles” count?). Somebody doing pony tricks hands-free on the back of a bike will probably get a patrolman’s attention and be stopped for simply being stupid. This new law is a good excuse to ticket someone who fits that definition.
A motorcyclist is responsible for the safety of his or her passenger. Making sure that the person feels secure on the back of a seat is part of that responsibility. The law now says that includes something the passenger can grip. The things we do for safety, like wearing helmets, protective gear, or keeping our headlights on, may not make any difference in a crash, but we do them anyway because you never know.
No doubt there will be clarifications added to Malorie’s Law down the line, but until then, do what you need to do to ride legally. The law may be a fickle mistress, but when you’re in doubt about what she wants, follow her intention the best you can.
* Texas law prior to “Malorie’s Law” provided: An operator may not carry another person on the motorcycle, and a person who is not operating the motorcycle may not ride on the motorcycle unless the motorcycle is designed to carry more than one person. Tex. Transp. Code Ann. § 545.416(b).
The amended version reads: An operator may not carry another person on the motorcycle, and a person who is not operating the motorcycle may not ride on the motorcycle, unless the motorcycle is: (1) designed to carry more than one person; and (2) equipped with footrests and handholds for use by the passenger.