Written By Chris Dolan and Kim Levy
This week’s question comes from Jeff from Marin County, CA, who asks: Recently, the news reported that license plate covers or frames obstructing the plate’s identification numbers were illegal. San Francisco has demanded major retailers like Amazon and Walmart to refrain from selling them on their sites. What about bike racks that cover up the license plate? Why are bicycle racks allowed to be on cars, even without bikes, and obstruct the plate numbers? Is this different from a plate cover? Should drivers remove their bike racks when not carrying a bike or bikes?
There is no difference under California law between a product specifically intended to conceal a license plate and a product that, while intended for another purpose, also incidentally covers a license plate. Any item that obstructs the view of a car’s license plate violates California law (and the laws of most other states). This would include bike racks, tow hitches, and anything else that could interfere with the ability to read a vehicle’s license plate.
California Vehicle Code section 5201 requires license plates to be securely fastened and “…mounted in a position so as to be clearly visible, and so the characters are upright and display from left to right and shall be maintained in a condition so as to be clearly legible.” This law includes any obstruction of the month and year of the vehicle’s registration.
Even if your bike rack does not conceal your license plate, the rack may violate other vehicle codes if it obstructs your brake lights, turn signal lights, or your rack obscures taillights. (California Vehicle Code sections 24603, 24952, 24600.)
If you carry a bike rack on your vehicle and, with or without bikes, it conceals your license plate, you have options. You may obtain a license plate holder for your bike rack so that you can display your plate while also enjoying the convenience of your bike rack. Many bike racks also have lighting kits that hook up to your vehicle’s existing lights, making your vehicle safer and in compliance with the law. Alternatively, you may install a bike rack on the top of your vehicle.
An exception to the rule regarding license plate obstruction exists for those vehicles with wheelchairs or wheelchair lifts. This exception is intended to allow persons with disabilities to move about freely without the hassle of having to reattach the vehicle’s license plate. The exception is quite strict and requires the vehicle’s owner to have:
- specific disability plates or placards,
- a decal issued by the DMV that contains the license plate number and,
- the decal must be displayed on the vehicle’s rear window in a location approved by DMV and California Highway Patrol.
Although complying with these laws may feel burdensome, they aim to increase public safety. Police, emergency responders, and helpful citizens may have to read your license plate to help identify your vehicle. More importantly, other drivers on the road need to be able to see your lights for visibility of your vehicle, to stop behind you in time, and to understand your intent by using your signal lights.
Retailers may continue to sell products that obscure license plates and lights, which is problematic for unsuspecting buyers in states where such products are illegal to display. It is up to the buyer to use common safety sense and to know the law.