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I am considering buying a tow hitch and bike rack for my minivan to transport a few bikes for an upcoming vacation. I've read a few reviews of these bike racks, and many folks have said that their license plate is not visible with these racks.

In the US, is there anything I need to get with my bike rack (license plate frame, extra tail lights, etc.) to make hauling my bikes legal?

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This is certainly going to vary state to state. –  kmm Mar 2 '13 at 18:27
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You can always buy a license bracket (with light) at a auto parts place and somehow attach it to the bikes or rack. The light can be driven by the trailer light outlet. You'd want to securely fasten it, though, to prevent loss/theft of the plate. (But I've never heard of anyone being hassled for this problem.) –  Daniel R Hicks Mar 2 '13 at 19:13
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Not really a bicycle question. "Can I attach such and such to my car so that it meets motor vehicle laws". –  Kaz Mar 2 '13 at 21:40
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If you are stopped because of a bike rack obscuring your plate, you are a truly unique case. If cops were stopping people for having trailer hitch bike racks, they'd be stopping 10s of thousands of people per day for it, which they most definitely are not. I can find only a few isolated incidents of cops taking exception to trailer hitch bike racks, and I'm pretty sure in every case the cop was using the bike rack as "probable cause" because he suspected something else. I wouldn't worry about it. I drive around with one all the time and certainly don't. –  Carey Gregory Mar 3 '13 at 0:04
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In the UK, you need to have your number plate visible and also the tail lights and indicators. As you have a tow hitch fitted, presumably you also have a trailor light fitting. I use a tow hitch bike rack, and for short journeys with only one bike I just stick it on. When I have five bikes on it, I add a trailor board with repeat lights and numberplate. –  DanS Mar 4 '13 at 14:32
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closed as not constructive by Neil Fein, freiheit Mar 4 '13 at 4:10

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3 Answers

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As others have indicated, vehicular laws vary from state to state and as such, laws about license plate display will too.

However, there is a lot of uniformity between states' vehicular laws. You can most likely count on a couple things regarding the display of your license plates:

  1. There is most likely a state statute dictating that your license plate must be clearly visible. How exactly they define that will vary from state to state.
  2. There is also most likely a statute dictating where your license plate must be placed. I.e., not more or less than a certain distance from the ground. And although I'm not aware of a state that does this, it's not unthinkable that there would be something requiring that the license plate be horizontally centered on the rear of your vehicle.

For example, I live in Missouri and our laws say:

301.140. Each such plate shall be securely fastened to the motor vehicle or trailer in a manner so that all parts thereof shall be plainly visible and reasonably clean so that the reflective qualities thereof are not impaired. Each such plate may be encased in a transparent cover so long as the plate is plainly visible and its reflective qualities are not impaired. License plates shall be fastened to all motor vehicles except trucks, tractors, truck tractors or truck-tractors licensed in excess of twelve thousand pounds on the front and rear of such vehicles not less than eight nor more than forty-eight inches above the ground, with the letters and numbers thereon right side up.

Again, the exact wording of your laws will be different. You should really look them up.

You should also note that it is not just tow hitch racks that can obscure a license plate. Many trunk racks will also obscure the plate if it is placed on the trunk and not the bumper.

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This will be state depended, and the law enforcement response is likely very localized (down to individual officer responses).

Where I live (outside US) it is illegal to have the numberplate obscured. We have a choice to either temporarily relocate the plate, or we can buy a Supplementary plate. In both cases we have no obligation for number plate lighting provided the main plate is in it's correct place when that is not obscured. As far as local law enforcement - the only problem is you will get pinged rarely - usually a cop who has not got his ticket quota this month.

Many people print there numberplate onto a piece of card and use that - whilst not legal I have not heard of anyone being ticketed for doing it, but i have heard of people being ticketed for not having anything.

Best option is talk to a local bike shop - the one you are buying the rack from - and ask them.

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Pretty much every state in the US and most countries have some sort of law saying your license plate can't be obstructed.

That said, can anyone cite any place in the world where they enforce those laws so strictly that a plate slightly and unintentionally obscured has even a remote chance of resulting in some sort of enforcement action?

Certainly nowhere I've ever heard of.

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I got a fine for having my plates slightly obstructed. Slightly obstructed is still obstructed. if the police cant read the whole plate then they cannot identify the car. –  robthewolf Mar 3 '13 at 7:18
    
@robthewolf: What was obstructing it? –  Carey Gregory Mar 3 '13 at 17:10
    
either one of the wheels or the pedals/drive train. To be honest they were just looking to do me for something to make up their monthly quota –  robthewolf Mar 3 '13 at 18:03
    
I think in most cases a cop stopping someone over a bike rack is really about something else. Maybe they're suspicious of something and so they use it as probable cause, or maybe they're annoyed at you and want to ticket you. –  Carey Gregory Mar 3 '13 at 20:31
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