Banned in America: Car Modifications That Are Illegal in Many States

Extreme Sienna from 2016 SEMA

Before risking fines and other trouble with the law, check and see if the car modifications are legal. | Toyota

The idea of accepting a vehicle straight from the factory sounds insane to some people. For starters, you are going to look exactly like everyone else who bought that car on the road and in the parking lot. That will offend the unique spirit in many people and might even give you a hard time figuring out which car is yours. (Celebrities often take this concept to the extreme.)

Fortunately there is an easy answer to this problem: car modifications. Custom paint jobs take care of any cosmetic similarity your car has with the legions of others, but that’s only the beginning of your options. You might want to raise your truck up a foot or more, install a thunderous stereo system, or make performance upgrades. In some cases, you might even install a device to help you avoid speeding tickets in your fast, modified car.

That’s where some folks get in trouble. Just because you want the coolest low-rider on the block doesn’t mean you can make it legal. However, it often depends on the state (sometimes, the county) where you live. Here are 10 vehicle modifications that are illegal in many parts of the U.S.

1. High lifts

View of SEMA Silverado by BDS Suspensions

Depending on the state, a sky-high lift may beak the law. | BDS Suspensions

Before you boost up your truck or passenger car, you’ll want to check your state’s lift laws. Elevating a muscle car or midsize sedan above 22 inches will get you a ticket in states like Florida and Ohio. The same goes for trucks topping 26 inches. Some states measure the legal amount of lift by what you add to the factory height. For example, Indiana law says you cannot raise a bumper more than three inches. Basically, if someone needs a step ladder to hop inside, your car exceeds the legal limit.

2. Dark window tints

Rear shot of 2015 SEMA F-150 by CGS Performance

CGS Performance Ford F-150 from 2015 SEMA | Ford

Put tinted windows on any car or truck and it looks like an upgrade. However, there are laws banning or limiting tint jobs in nearly every state. For example, Illinois law prohibits any front or side window tinting unless the driver has a medical condition (and the documentation to prove it). Other states allow some tinting on the upper edge of the windshield or permit tints as long as they transmit a minimum percentage of light. Cops carry devices to measure how much light passes through the windows, and they’ll ticket you if they find a violation.

3. Automatic license plate covers

Rugift.com's electric license plate cover

This automatic license plate cover will obscure front and back plates simultaneously. | Rugift

You probably didn’t need us to tell you, but we’ll note this one is illegal just in case. You can’t cover your license plate in any way while driving. The police will give you a ticket if a custom plate frame even covers a few numbers. If (hypothetically speaking) you go so far as to install Rugift’s electric device that automatically covers front and back plates at the flick of a switch, you’ll probably end up in even more trouble. Still, consumers in Russia and the U.S. can pick one up from Rugift.com if the mood strikes.

4. That booming system

View of the back of a Toyota Prius with upgraded car stereo and speakers

The stereo in this Prius may be more powerful than the stock engine. | Getty Images

Blaring your favorite tunes for the world to hear used to be more popular. Since the early days of the booming system, many states and local municipalities passed laws to limit how much damage you can do to others’ eardrums and taste in music. Cops could give you a ticket based on the volume (i.e., decibel level) or how far away someone can hear your music. The Florida Supreme Court famously struck down a car stereo law in 2012, but officers can still cite you if county laws in that area allow them.

5. Low-riding

A custom lowrider '66 Impala

A modified 1966 Chevrolet Impala | Barrett-Jackson

As with vehicle lifts, many states regulate how much you can lower a vehicle. For example, Georgia law prohibits lowering a bumper or suspension more than two inches below factory specifications. Maryland also has limits in place for those who want to drop a vehicle to the ground. Neither California nor Arizona has limitations on how much you can bring a ride down. If you wonder how low-rider culture began, start there.

6. Radar devices

LAS VEGAS, NV - JANUARY 07: The Passport iQ by Escort, the world's first integrated radar detector and 3-D GPS navigation unit, is displayed at the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center January 7, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The USD 649 device features a five-inch color touch screen, voice-guided navigation and protects against both radar and laser detection, alerts for speed traps and has a database of red light camera locations in North America updated weekly. CES, the world's largest annual consumer technology trade show, runs through January 9 and is expected to feature 2,700 exhibitors showing off their latest products and services to about 126,000 attendees.

A radar detector app would be legal in passenger cars across most of America. | Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Surprisingly, radar detectors are legal for passenger vehicles in every state except Virginia. (D.C. drivers cannot use them either.) However, anyone operating a commercial vehicle cannot install one of these devices, so they are certainly illegal for truck drivers. If you mount one above the dashboard, police may give you a ticket for obstructing the view of the driver, so check local laws on placement if you opt for a radar detector.

7. Laser jammers

A Fairfax, Virginia, motorcycle Officer aims his ProLaser III, Lidar, towards drivers that may be speeding March 10, 2009, on Lee Highway-Route 29.

A laser jammer will stop the use of laser speed tests. | Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Law enforcement will often use laser guns rather than radar when tracking the speeds of highway vehicles. In some states, more than half the tickets come from the use of these laser readers. As a result, you might consider a laser jammer for your car. These devices, which sell for about $600, have ways to deflect or distort the signal sent from a police officer’s device. Not surprisingly, they have become illegal in states such as California, Texas, and Minnesota.

8. Exhaust mods

Waste gas comes out of an exhaust pipe of a car on December 01, 2010 in Berlin.

Aftermarket exhaust mods could get you a ticket. | Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

It might be tempting to look into an aftermarket exhaust kit for an extra horsepower boost. However, if any of these mods disable or alter emissions levels from your car, you are breaking the law. You won’t pass inspection with these tweaks and, if any upgrade jacked up the volume on your engine, you could draw the attention of the cops. Fines will follow, as will dirty looks if you have any families with young children in your neighborhood. 

9. Neon lights

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - MARCH 27: Neon glows from under a truck during the Spring Break Nationals Glowoff Competition March 27, 2004 in Daytona Beach, Florida. A glow-off is a competition of lighting accessories such as neon lighting kits, strobe lights, LED lights and other 12-volt lighting accessories. Vehicles entered in the glow-off vie for cash prizes and best interior lighting and best exterior lighting awards. Judging is based upon creativity, cosmetic integration and installation integrity.

Neon undercarriage lights are illegal in most states. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Sure, the ’90s have come and gone, but some people still think neon lights look cool under a car. If you plan to add some type of spotlight to your vehicle’s undercarriage, check the local laws. Authorities in many cities and states don’t want drivers to confuse a regular citizen with a police officer, so blue and red lights are banned in most jurisdictions. Several states ban the use of hazard lights unless certain conditions exist, and underbody lights could fall under that banner. 

10. Off-road lights

View of Ford Raptor with off-road light bar

Using off-road lights on highways typically warrants a fine. | Pro Line Racing

Light bars come in handy if you like to take your pickup truck off-road, but driving with them on highways is illegal unless you cover them. Otherwise, these light can reflect off oncoming headlights and endanger other drivers. Accidentally using them on the road is another risk when you don’t cover them. Drivers will struggle to see anything if you are flashing a row of lights in their direction on the road. Cops will definitely pull you over for this one.

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