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Go Ape Crazy: South Dakota Governor Pulls Down Ape Hanger Law

Chaparral Motorsports
February 27, 2015
Last Updated: October 12, 2020

You can now fly your hands as high as you want while riding your motorcycle in South Dakota. State Governor, Dennis Daugaard, has signed off on Senate Bill 85 striking down SD codified law 32-20-3, which made it a petty offense to operate a motorcycle with handlebars that put the grips at or above shoulder height. The signing of SB 85 allows riders to roll with [mageProductLink sku="321-0873" title=""]16-inch ape hangers[/mageProductLink], 20-inch apes, or whatever size handlebars they want without worrying about getting hounded by law enforcement.

Ape hanger enthusiasts owe a big thank you to ABATE of South Dakota which was the primary force pushing SB 85 forward and getting it signed by the governor. Senate Bill 85 goes into effect on July 1, 2015, just in time for quite possibly the largest party in the Black Hills to date, the 75th Annual Sturgis Rally.

A few of the talking points ABATE used to push SB 85 was:

No National or State Standard: At least one manufacturer sells factory motorcycles with bars above the limit in SD. A brand new motorcycle can be legal in one state and illegal in another.

There is no commonly agreed upon standard between the states.

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 123 sets criteria for the standardized placement of controls and footrests, but makes absolutely no mention at all on the suggested height of handlebars.

Comfort or Style, Not Safety: There are no scientific studies showing handlebar height to have a negative impact on safety. The only study involving handlebars was a 1973 study of handlebars on bicycles. That study concluded that high handlebars actually improved handling in some maneuvers and overall high handlebars had no detrimental effect

According to ABATE the repeal was approved without any opposition.

Sturgis Buffalo Chip

While Sturgis attendees will be able to let their knuckles break the breeze as high as they want, those that ride in from other states or venture past the SD state line need to be aware that surrounding states: Wyoming, North Dakota, and Nebraska do have motorcycle handlebar height restrictions. There are only 13 other states that don't have motorcycle handlebar restrictions: Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee.

Repealing the law comes as a big relief for many motorcycle enthusiasts. For many years South Dakota's ape hanger law has been a big point of contention for out of state riders. While the petty offense only resulted in a $20 fine, many riders saw it as a way for local and state law enforcement officials to poke around for larger/more serious infractions.

Having personally been pulled over in the Sturgis area for riding a friends Road King that had 14-inch apes that were above my shoulders I can say from my opinion the handlebar law seemed to be in place as a way to open the door to find other possible infractions as opposed to the state having a real concern for rider safety.

Story time. Several years back, right after Victory Motorcycles introduced its new Vision models, I had procured a Vision Tour to ride during the Sturgis rally for a road test article. One day while riding up Hwy 14 to Deadwood my friend wanted to try out the Vision so we switched bikes. He owned a really clean Road King with 14-inch apes. It wasn't more than two miles down the road that I noticed flashing lights in the rear view mirror. We pulled off to the side of the road and the officer approached me and informed me that the handlebars were too tall. The officer then asked me to follow him back to his car as he checked my license. I was asked to take a spot in the front seat as he ran my information. Now I'm sure many of you would see this as an immediate red flag since I wasn't placed under arrest or cuffed, but with no warrants and a spotless record I had no problem obliging the officer.

As I sat in the front seat of his patrol car and explained how the bike belonged to my friend who was sitting on the side of the road several yards ahead of us, I noticed it was unusually hot in the car. It was about 4:30 pm, in the middle of August, so it was already pretty warm and humid outside. However, inside the officer's car it was exceptionally hot and uncomfortable. Then in between his questioning I quickly glanced around and noticed all the windows were up and the heater appeared to be on (unless his AC was broke and for some reason he had the fan kicked up to high).

After about 10 minutes of me explaining my story and him checking my license he informed me that if I could pull the handlebars down to below my shoulders he would let me off with a warning and I could then ride the bike the rest of the way home (to where we were staying). So I grabbed my license, hopped on the Road King ripped the handlebars back and we were on our way.

Later that evening while telling the story to another acquaintance, he hypothesized the reason why it was so hot in the car was that the officer was trying to find out if I had been drinking or if there was alcohol in my system, and was using the heat to get me sweating to better detect any odor of alcohol. I don't know if that was the case or if it's even a feasible tactic-I just found it very odd to be so hot in his car, however, since I hadn't been drinking, I wasn't worried either way.

This signing of SB 85 will make Governor Daugaard a very popular person come rally time. I'm sure there will be a long line of bikers more than willing to buy that man a beer if they spot him wandering around downtown Sturgis.

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