If you own an "upstanding" 4x4, chances are good that The Man will eventually pull you over for a closer look. Some cops are truck enthusiasts, but even they likely haven't studied their state's entire vehicle code. Ignorance is rarely an excuse, and the vehicle owner is ultimately responsible for all modifications.
Most lift-related laws remain the same from our last roundup about 10 years ago. (Newer laws focus mainly on mobile electronics and other fads, such as whistling exhausts and nitrous oxide for street racing.)
Suspension-modification regulations remain a hodgepodge from state to state. The common-sense approach long advocated by the aftermarket is to set maximum bumper or frame heights based on easily determined gross vehicle weight ratings (GVWRs). A number of pro-hobby states have adopted this approach, but at least an equal number either make only partial reference to height and GVWR or rely upon some unique system of measurement and regulation.
A Seattle-based lawyer who has worked with the automakers as well as several aftermarket manufacturers (and whom you might see wheeling around Moab) offers this advice pro bono: "State lift laws are generally concerned with on-road handling, safety, and collision compatibility. Owners bear the ultimate responsibility for modified vehicles. So before you start dreaming about your ultimate rockcrawler, take a step back and finalize whether you are really building an on- and off-road-capable vehicle. Then drill down on what your state's modified vehicle regulations will allow. Source your components from established suppliers, read the instructions and warnings before you begin, and you are likely to wind up with a rig and a hobby you can be proud of."
For this guide we give an overview, then quote applicable parts of some state statutes, referring to the section of the code with that fancy double-S symbol. This illustrates how some sections are fairly clear while others are open to interpretation. Loopholes include language like "unless prior consent is given in writing from the director."
Also, code exceptions are sometimes made for agricultural vehicles (does your stakebed fit your state's definition?), vehicles that are titled as "home-built," parade vehicles, ones in funeral processions, snow-removal equipment, ones over 10,000 pounds GVWR, and even frozen dessert trucks.
Unfortunately, most legislators aren't gearheads. Searching for suspension usually finds sections dealing with driver's license revocation. Also, truck tends to be used for commercial vehicles; a few states specify pickup.
Some requirements are consistent among states. For example, maximum allowable vehicle height is generally 13 feet 6 inches (in case you're thinking about flatbedding your monster truck to the Fall Jamboree), and track width cannot exceed 102 inches. Width requirements sometimes address motorhomes with awnings and plumbing trucks with side-mounted pipe racks-but these sections can also dovetail fender flares and nerf bars. Distances are usually measured from the ground (which some states painstakingly describe as the surface upon which the tires contact) to the lights' centers and to the bottom/lowermost surface of frames and bumpers.
This month we cover the North Atlantic states, top to bottom instead of alphabetically. As we move west in the coming months, we'll have more wide-open space to discuss issues like reciprocity among states.
We encourage all 4x4 owners and especially those who are police officers or attorneys to share their anecdotes about equipment legalities (particularly in New Jersey) by posting their experiences on our forum (forums.4wheeloffroad.com). Maybe we'll add a Lift Laws/Equipment Violations category. (Ongoing legislative updates are available online at LiftLaws.com.)