Palmetto State cracks down on motorcycle licensing

For Weekly SurgeJune 3, 2013 

OK, I wasn’t running a meth lab in my garage or “selling guns to the Irish” like the fictional Sons of Anarchy motorcycle club on television, but it turns out I was breaking a number of laws when I first started riding in South Carolina.

When I got my motorcycle here years ago, several friends told me about a loophole that would allow a person to ride indefinitely without having to ever actually get a motorcycle endorsement on their driver’s license. This endorsement, issued by the South Carolina Department of Motorcycle Vehicles (DMV) is simply the letter “M” for motorcycle added to your existing South Carolina automobile driver’s license, designating you have a motorcycle license. Unlike the learner’s or beginner’s permit, the full endorsement requires riders to successfully perform a number of riding exercises in front of an evaluator – a driving test, if you will; and then, a new, modified license with the endorsement must be issued, meaning a long day at the DMV.

To get the beginner’s license though, one simply had to correctly read a few letters on a vision test; pass a short, simple written test; and, you were free to ride. The permit was valid for up to one year. After 180 days you were eligible to take the driving test for your full endorsement or you could continue riding on your permit and simply retake the same written test at the end of the year to extend your learner’s as many times as you wanted. So, like many others not wanting to burn a vacation day waiting in lines or to risk my freedom to ride under the watchful eye of some lady with a pencil in her bun and clipboard in her hands at the DMV who might ground me for nudging a cone or putting my foot down at the wrong time, I continued to ride on my permit for longer than I care to admit. Heck, many of us did.

What I didn’t know when I rode day and night to and from Sturgis, S.D. with my wife Sissy on back was that I was breaking a number of laws in at least two states. First, unbeknownst to me, on a learner’s permit (then) I was only allowed to ride during daylight hours, but I was riding after dark routinely. I also didn’t realize that my learner’s permit was not valid in the state of South Dakota, which only honors permits from states that honor theirs; S.C. doesn’t accept any out-of-state learner’s permits. Finally, I heard, but have not been able to confirm, that it was also illegal to carry a passenger on a learner’s permit. So, technically I was an outlaw motorcycle rider. When I figured out I was breaking all these laws at the risk of having my motorcycle taken away I bit the bullet and got my full motorcycle endorsement.

So why do I bring all this up now? Because the state of South Carolina recently announced it has closed the loophole. Changes have been made to the learner’s permit rules.

According to a DMV press release dated May 31, “The South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), supported by the South Carolina Motorcycle Task Force, announced today new motorcycle beginner permit renewal procedures designed to increase motorcycle rider safety. [The Motorcycle Safety Task Force includes representatives from several state and county agencies and motorcycle groups and they recommended the change in procedure to DMV.] Before renewing a motorcycle beginner’s permit [Effective June 3], each applicant must now make an effort to pass the motorcycle skills test.

DMV changed the procedure to prevent motorcyclists from continuously renewing their beginner permits rather than applying for a motorcycle license. Now applicants are required to take the motorcycle skills test first. If they pass, they will receive a motorcycle license or endorsement. If they fail, they will be allowed to renew the beginner’s permit.”

So they’re on to us. “The bottom line is that too many of South Carolina’s motorcyclists are riding around with beginner permits instead of licenses. If they don’t have a motorcycle license, we don’t know if they are truly capable of operating the motorcycle,” said DMV Executive Director Kevin Shwedo in the release.

The release also indicated “DMV research indicates that 17 percent of the state’s current motorcycle operators have beginner permits. With nearly 112,000 motorcycles on South Carolina roads, 30 percent may be operated by beginner permit holders, not licensed motorcycle riders.”

During the recent spring rallies here along the Grand Strand there were no motorcycle-related fatalities during the Harley-Davidson rally; but, tragically seven people died in motorcycle-related crashes during the Atlantic Beach Bikefest over the Memorial Day weekend. The DMV released cites, “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics also tell a much grimmer story. In 2011, motorcycle fatalities made up 15 percent of all vehicle fatalities in the state. The number of motorcycle fatalities also increased by 18 percent from the previous year.”

So what’s the bottom line? In the release, Shwedo said, “We have found motorcycle riders who have renewed their beginner permits five, ten and even 13 times. If they can’t operate their bike after a year or two of practice, they don’t need to be on the road at all.”

Hard to argue with that.

To view complete details regarding motorcycle licenses in South Carolina, visit the DMV Web site at

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