Are Motorcycles Automobiles? Here’s What You May Not Know


It would be safe to assume that a motorcycle would fall under certain categories, such as “automobile” because it’s auto propelled. But a lot of people don’t really have to think about it too much unless they’re in a technical, legal situation involving insurance or other related matters.

The the definition of automobile may be obvious, but when getting technical, it can actually be a little different from what you think. Many wonder, after all the technicality, if a motorcycle does or does not fall under the definition of an automobile.

Are motorcycles automobiles? Technically, a motorcycle is not considered an automobile. The definition of an automobile is a road vehicle that powers itself typically on four wheels that can carry a small amount of passengers. Since motorcycles only have two wheels and carry a max of one passenger, they don’t fall under the definition of “automobile.”

Getting into the particulars of something like this probably doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it can be helpful knowledge. This article can explain in further depth about why motorcycles aren’t automobiles as well as what other definitions they could be defined under.

Why They’re Not Considered An Automobile

The word automobile is greatly misunderstood. Often times it may seem like there isn’t a find line between automobile, mobile, motorized vehicle, and other related terms. You’ll see many arguments online about what exactly falls under the term “automobile” and what does not.

It’s usually assumed that such a word simply means a machine that propels itself. If this was the case, you can have all sorts of machines fall under this category such as elevators, escalators, trams, trains, etc. The part of the term that distinguishes itself is when it says “usually with four wheels” and can “take at least several passengers from one place to another on the road.”

The main reason a motorcycle does not fall under the definition of automobile is because of the amount of tires it has as well as the limited number of passengers it can have. It gets into a gray area for motorcycles with a side car or three wheeled bikes.

The word automobile usually entails vehicles such as cars, buses, limousines, and vans which are all vehicles with four wheels that can carry a larger number of passengers. There have been several official court cases such as Jernigan v. Hanover Fire Ins. Co. and Beeler v. Pennsylvania Threshermen & Farmers Ins. Co. that deemed motorcycles to not be considered automobiles.

In the same dissertation that discusses these court cases, the Nebraska Law Review states that “the term automobile in the general sense embraces all motor vehicles except motorcycles, designed for use on highways for conveyance of persons or property, and in the particular sense it includes such motor vehicles, other than motorcycles, as are intended for use on highways for carriage of persons only.”

Despite the actual meaning of automobile, many people still consider motorcycles to be one simply because it’s a self propelling machine meant for transportation. People will likely understand what you mean stating that a motorcycle is an automobile since the definition is often misunderstood and not many people care too much about the particulars.

Why It Matters To Motorcyclists

It’s good to have knowledge about the actual definition of the word “automobile” and know whether or not a motorcycle falls under that category. But since it seems to be kind of a gray area for most, why does it matter whether or not a motorcycle is considered an automobile?

Well, for the most part, it probably doesn’t matter. People throw the term “automobile” around a lot and it can be used interchangeably without the blink of an eye from anyone. However, there is one case where where it does matter knowing if a motorcycle is or is not an automobile and that usually pertains to anything legal.

Legal matters, such as insurance, will very much get nit-picky about the actual definition of the word automobile and whether or not a motorcycle is considered one. Let’s look at an example. Let’s say you had your motorcycle placed in a storage unit. One night, a large fire happens and your motorcycle was unfortunately one of the casualties of the fire.

You had opted in with your homeowner’s insurance to have “off premises” personal property coverage which normally covers your items placed in a storage unit. Your insurance states that it covers automobiles in it’s policy. One would think that a motorcycle would have been considered an automobile, so you feel like the cost of replacing your motorcycle should be covered.

Because the legality of insurance likes to put a strict definition on situations so they have a fine line of what they will and will not pay for, your home owner’s insurance would likely not cover the motorcycle because it technically is not considered an automobile. You are left relying on your motorcycle insurance if you had any.

So while, for the most part, it doesn’t matter if a motorcycle is considered an automobile or not, it does matter in a legal sense. Be sure to look at the fine print and understand what automobile means before assuming your motorcycle relates to it when it comes to anything legal.

Difference Between Automobile and Motor Vehicle

So if a motorcycle isn’t necessarily considered an automobile, what is the best umbrella term to use to describe a motorcycle? The term “motor vehicle” is likely your best bet when using interchangeable words.

The definition of a motor vehicle is actually different from automobile. According to the United States Department of Justice, “the word motor vehicle includes road vehicles, such as automobiles, vans, motorcycles, and trucks, as well as off-road vehicles such as self-propelled construction and farming equipment.”

Motor vehicle is a much broader term than automobile and can be used to define any type of machine that is used to take a person from point A to point B and is self moving. Motorcycles fall directly underneath this category.

So what exactly is the difference between an automobile and motor vehicle? The term motor vehicle is not exclusive to just four wheeled vehicles like the term automobile. It also does not state how many passengers are required to make it as such, only that it can get a person from one place to another.

So if you ever sign a contract that discusses motor vehicles rather than automobiles, your motorcycle should be covered under that term since it’s much more broad and entails really anything that can go on the road.

Automobile Laws

One thing that’s sometimes confused among motorcyclists is the laws they have to keep while on the road. And now that we’ve covered the fact that motorcycles are not considered automobiles, that means they don’t have to follow the same rules as them, right?

You’ll have to remember that an automobile is a type of motorized vehicle (and so are motorcycles). Though they may not be the same kind of vehicle, road and street laws apply to all motorized vehicles which includes motorcycles. Motorcycles have to follow the same laws as any other motorized vehicle (and automobile) on the road.

This means motorcycles are not permitted to park on the sidewalk or on the striped lines in a parking lot just like any other type of vehicle isn’t permitted to do so. If a motorcycle violates any traffic laws, such as running a red light or exceeding the speed limit, they’re just as likely to get a traffic ticket.

Motorcycles, like all other types of motor vehicles, are also required to be registered and have at least liability insurance (in most states). The license plate must be visible as well as blinkers, headlights, and brake lights.

There are only a few exceptions motorcycles have when it comes to the laws of the road. Such exceptions may include lane splitting and being able to proceed through a red light if the light doesn’t seem to register that a motorcyclist is there. For more information about the laws motorcycles need to abide by, see my other article here.

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