All 50 U.S. States and the District of Columbia require riders to obtain a motorcycle operator license or endorsement (Source).

While the goal of licensing is to assure that motorcycle riders have the minimum skills needed to operate motorcycles safely, the effectiveness, for reducing crash risk,  of motorcycle operator licensing,  is not known.  There are no evaluations of whether increasing the proportion of motorcycle riders who are validly licensed reduces the number of  motorcycles crashes. This is partially due to the variability of licensing tests and procedures.  Most states have learner’s permits requiring only vision and/or knowledge tests which allow permit holders to ride only in restricted circumstances. Usually a riding skill test and/or completion of an approved rider course is required for full licensure.  Most states will waive the skills test and some will waive the knowledge test for riders who complete an approved course.

Despite State requirements, many motorcycle riders are not properly licensed.  This data comes primarily from fatal crash statistics that show that in some states, 30-40% or more of motorcycle operators killed in crashes were not properly licensed.  While this data might easily lead one to conclude that being properly licensed reduces the risk of being in a crash, this would be an inappropriate conclusion.  We have to remember “Correlation does not imply causation.”  A correlation between two variables does not imply that one causes the other.

Fatally injured riders, in addition to being more likely to be unendorsed, are also more likely to be alcohol impaired and to have been riding without a helmet.  No license, no helmet and riding impaired indicate a lack of responsibility and good judgment.  In his presentation at the 2001 International Motorcycle Safety Conference, research Daniel R. Mayhew put it this way:

Alcohol remains a factor in almost one half of the fatal motorcycle crashes in the United States and one-third of those in Canada.  More importantly, in 1998 among fatally injured motorcycle drivers who have been drinking, 59% in Canada and 55% in the United States had excessively high blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) over .15.  Many fatally injured motorcyclists in the United States did not have a valid license (17%), were not wearing a helmet (47%), had previous suspensions/revocations (21%) as well as previous convictions for speeding (30%) and previous collisions (19%).  These findings as well as the finding that almost half of the motorcycle driver deaths occurred in single vehicle collisions (44% in Canada and 46% in the United States) suggest that high-risk riders are often at fault. 

Note:  The below listed documents contain information related to licensing.  None of the documents are research on the effectiveness of licensing for reducing crash risk as no such research has been located. 

Licensing Research Studies

2009 – “Guidelines for Motorcycle Operator Licensing”

This guideline document contains information on standard motorcycle operator licensing systems; motorcycle safety initiatives and strategies to increase proper licensure among motorcyclists within a jurisdiction; a model Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) system for new-entrant riders; and motorcycle rider education waiver programs and third party testing.

2005 – “Promising Practices in Motorcycle Rider Education and Licensing”

The purpose of this 64 page report is to develop a model of promising practices (including licensing) based on the limited available research and position papers published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

2005 – “Motorcycle Rider Education and Licensing: A Review of Programs and Practices”

This is a 243 page report presenting data on practices, including licensing, as collected in 2001.

2001 – “Trends in the Motorcycle Crash Problem”

This paper considers the implications of the findings for countermeasure development, especially for rider licensing and rider education and training programs.  The author concludes “influencing rider attitudes and behavior is likely the most promising means for achieving long-term cost-effective crash reductions.  Certainly, the findings show there is a pressing need to address the high-risk rider, who in the majority of the cases is at fault” but also “improved rider licensing and rider education/training programs hold the most promise for influencing novice riders, and eventually, all motorcyclists in the future.  In particular, graduated driver licensing, integrated with multi-stage driver education/training that focuses on rider skills as well as rider motivations and attitudes, appear warranted.”