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Can I Legally Drive With My Trunk Open?

a police officer looking in the open trunk of a car with the driver looking on
By Teo Spengler, J.D. on September 16, 2021 11:27 AM

Many people occasionally drive their cars, trucks, or SUVs with the trunk open. This may or may not be legal, depending on the vehicle you are driving, the state you live in, and whether you are carrying cargo in the back of the truck.

All states allow pickup truck and SUV owners to drive with the back open when carrying bulky cargo, as long as that cargo does not stick out beyond the legal limit. If your truck is not carrying cargo, however, it's a different matter.

Some pickup truck owners prefer to drive with the tailgate down even when the bed is empty. Most states do not outlaw this practice, but a handful of states do have laws forbidding this. The laws appear to apply to both the tailgates of trucks, the hatch doors of an SUV, and the trunks of cars.

Texas law is typical of those states that forbid driving with the trunk open, stating that you cannot drive a vehicle if a tailgate, tailboard, tarpaulin, door, fastening device, or equipment or rigging is not securely in place. Other states with similar laws include Kansas, Illinois, Minnesota, Maryland, Nebraska, and New Jersey.

Overhang Regulations for Cargo

Overhang regulations apply when you're hauling that new couch or bed frame that doesn't quite fit inside of your vehicle, as long as it doesn't hang out too far. SUV owners can keep the hatch door open with the same caveats as truck tailgates. Just like with a tailgate or hatch, the legality of driving with your trunk door open depends on what state you are in and how far the object extends out of the back.

Every state sets its own standards about overhang limitations, and many also have regulations about marking the overhang. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) enacted regulations setting a minimum permissible overhang of up to 3 feet in front, 4 feet in the rear, and 4 inches on each side. All states must permit this amount of overhang, but they are free to allow even greater overhangs, and many do. Washington, for example, allows a maximum of 15 feet.

The most common state practice is to mirror the basic federal overhang rules of 3 feet in front and 4 feet in the rear. However, Arizona, Maryland, and Delaware allow a 6-foot overhang in back, Colorado allows 10 feet in back, and both Nevada and North Dakota authorize a 10-foot overhang in front and in back.

Other states have crafted very different laws for specific situations. Florida, for example, allows trucks carrying automobiles or boats to overhang 9 feet in back and 3 feet in front of the vehicle, while trucks carrying trees can overhang 10 feet in back. And, to complicate matters further, some states — like California — measure the overhang from the nearest axle, while others measure it from the bumper tip.

It pays to know your state's overhang rules because if you violate them, you may get a traffic ticket.

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