Driving

Is Driving Barefoot Illegal in Your State?

hero-image

Have you ever been yelled at by an older relative to put on your shoes before driving a car? Although it seems strange, there’s a reason for their warning, even if it is based on a misconception: Most Americans hold the extremely common belief that barefoot driving is illegal in America. It’s a surprise to many that this is just an urban legend. 

It is, in fact, legal to drive a car, pickup truck, or similar vehicle without footwear in all 50 states. In the 1990s, a man named Jason Heimbaugh wrote to each of the 50 states’ departments of motor vehicles to make sure of it. Some took a long time to respond, but eventually, all confirmed that barefoot driving is indeed legal. Since then, the laws have remained the same.

Is it illegal to drive barefoot in your state?

Although every state technically deems barefoot driving a legal action, many have their own ways of saying it — and several still keep recommendations against the practice on their books. Here’s how official positions break down by state.

  • Alabama:Operation of a motor vehicle by a driver with bare feet is permitted except for motorcycle drivers and riders.

  • Ohio:Operation of a motor vehicle by a driver with bare feet is permitted, but not recommended.

  • California:Operation of a motor vehicle by a driver with bare feet is not prohibited.

How did this misconception get started?

So this shocking revelation raises the question: If it’s legal to drive barefoot, how did so many people come to believe the opposite? How did this urban legend of barefoot driving begin?

One of the main origins is simply this: Many people believe, as we often do about laws that seem pointless or incomprehensible to us, that the practice is illegal for no particular reason. They may assume it’s considered generally unsafe, or — in a case of circular logic — that there’s a ban because most people drive with shoes on. In reality, though, laws don’t usually exist just because the population “thinks” something “must be” dangerous or bad. Instead, traffic laws come into existence after a danger has actually been proven.

Of course, we’ve all heard those made-up tales (sometimes even in drivers’ education classes!) of the teenage driver whose bare feet slipped off the pedals and caused a crash, or another instance where someone lost their toes from getting into a wreck while driving barefoot. But the stories are at least, anecdotal, and at most, made up. They were not the impetus for the passage of nationwide traffic laws. 

Another reason for the widespread misconception could be that some police departments do officially discourage barefoot driving. However, “discouraging” something and actually banning it are very different things. It turns out that there are no laws to back up the sentiment of discouragement.

Finally, there’s a misconception that if you get into an accident, you’ll be cited for reckless driving if you’re found to have no shoes on. In reality, the problem is not your shoes; it’s that you got into an accident! Drive safely and you’ll never have to worry about this. 

That said, some police officers themselves don’t know that it’s legal to drive without shoes, so they might try giving you a ticket. Like other incorrectly issued citations, this could be challenged in court. However, if you’ve had an accident and the manner in which you were driving still qualifies as reckless, then the citation would stand, regardless of your footwear. (Read more about this gray area in the Qualifying Opinions section below.)

Qualifying opinions on barefoot driving

Have you ever heard the saying, “just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s a good idea?” Several states make the point that despite not being illegal, driving barefoot can be unsafe and is not a recommended practice. Others caution drivers that local municipalities have the right to enact their own prohibitions against barefoot driving.

On the other hand, many officials consider driving barefoot to be safer, at least, than wearing certain types of footwear (such as flip-flops). This is because some footwear can interfere with the operation of the pedals or the driver’s ability to feel the pedal positions. Read below to see how certain states weigh in on the matter. 

  • Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, and Wyoming: In their communications with Mr. Heimbaugh, all of these states made it a point to note that even though barefoot driving is legal, they consider it unsafe. There is no report of why they hold this opinion of the practice.

  • Kansas and Missouri: Police in Harrisonville, Missouri, not only allow barefoot driving, but even make the point that it can be safer than driving in flip-flops or high heels. The sentiment is echoed by the Missouri Highway Patrol, which adds that wedges are another shoe type that can be more dangerous than no shoes at all.

  • Michigan: In another state that recognizes bare feet as not being dangerous for driving, the Michigan State Police Traffic Service Section declared in a field update that it would be “a stretch” to call driving barefoot careless or reckless, since it could be argued that such a driver has more control over the vehicle when barefoot.

  • Minnesota: In an interview with the Duluth News Tribune, a Minnesota state trooper confirmed that it is legal to drive barefoot in the state. He also noted that it is safer to forego shoes rather than wearing flip flops or other footwear that could get stuck amongst the pedals and interfere with their proper operation.

  • Ohio: This state recommends, but does not mandate, the use of shoes while driving. Lawyers Plus also notes that if an accident occurs and an officer believes your lack of shoes contributed, you can still be cited for “failure to exercise due care.”

  • Nevada: Lawyers Plus says that like Ohio, Nevada does not prohibit barefoot driving but can cite you if an officer believes that your lack of shoes contributed to an accident.

  • Tennessee: When questioned, an official from Tennessee said that the state code had no prohibitions on barefoot driving, but noted that the state’s municipalities might have ordinances of their own. Therefore, you would have to check local regulations to be sure that it’s legal in your area of the state.

  • Wisconsin: State Trooper Jim Larson told the Wisconsin State Journal that not only is it legal to drive barefoot in the state, but also that many do so. He says that it’s safer to do this than to wear heels or other shoes that make driving difficult.

In an interesting twist, Larson also noted that he has pulled people over for sobriety tests, and many ask if they can put their shoes back on before taking the standing and walking portion of the test. He allows this, as most people feel more stable on their feet when wearing shoes. The shoes — or lack thereof — are not the focus of these stops, but instead, the suspicion of intoxication gets them pulled over.

Motorcycle laws on barefoot driving

Likely because the feet of motorcycle drivers and passengers are exposed to the elements and possible injury from road debris, one state has enacted different laws for them. Here is the single state we found which requires the use of footwear while on a motorcycle:

  • Alabama: No person shall operate or ride upon a motorcycle or motor-driven cycle unless he is wearing shoes. (Apparently, a “motor-driven cycle” refers to a bicycle with a motor attached, listed as a different type of machine from a motorcycle.)

However, most states do not pose any such prohibitions. Even California, which is known for its safety-minded laws, allows people to ride a motorcycle while barefoot, although the state does recommend against the practice.

Safety implications of driving barefoot

Part of what likely contributed to the barefoot driving urban legend is, of course, your grandparents’ worst fear: Your foot could slip off the pedal and cause a crash. However, this questionable fear doesn’t take into account the fact that virtually any kind of flimsy, loose, unsecured, or high-heeled footwear could pose the same dangers, as well as others. Here are some wider outlooks to consider on the issue:

  • Bare feet may not have the same braking force as feet that are wearing a solid pair of shoes.
  • Bare feet may slip off the pedals more easily. When people say something may happen “more easily,” the first thing to ask is “more easily than what?” Compared to shoes or boots that feature high-traction soles, bare feet are more slippery. However, the opposite is true when compared to slick-bottomed shoes like men’s or women’s dress shoes or high heels. The slip factor is also partly determined by the construction of the pedal coverings. Rubberized pedals are usually quite grippy, while plain metal ones can be slick.
  • Driving barefoot can be safer than driving with flip-flops, high heels, or even shoes with long laces. Flip-flops get their name from their ability to flip up and flop around, and both of these attributes can pose serious problems when trying to drive. They can flip up under pedals, which is a massive hazard for stopping with the brake pedal or accelerating with the gas pedal. Also, they can flop to the side as you try to move your foot from the gas or brake pedals, blocking your foot from its destination. Again, the tangling is a huge problem if you need to put on the brakes, especially if you don’t have much time to stop.
  • High heels pose similar difficulties; their elevation tends to interfere with the angle and foot movements needed for driving. Also, a tall heel can immobilize a pedal even more securely than a flip-flop can. 
  • Open-toed shoes also can pose the same hazard as flip-flops: getting hung up on or under the pedals and keeping your foot from properly pressing down.They also tend to have slick soles. And even secure, low-heeled, closed-toed shoes can pose a problem, if they have laces that are long enough to loop around a pedal and impede the movement of your feet.
  • You can still be held responsible for negligence if you’re in an accident while driving barefoot. Barefoot driving could be seen as a cause of distracted driving.  This is especially true if an officer believes your barefootedness has contributed to the wreck. Of course, such an assertion by an officer can be contested in court, and since it’s legal to drive this way, that aspect of any charges may well be thrown out. This would depend on the specifics of the case, as you might expect.
  • However, it’s also important to remember that just because it’s legal to drive barefoot, that’s not a “get out of trouble free” card. Your other driving behaviors still count, not only in physics but also in the eyes of the law. Therefore, it’s important to always drive carefully, regardless of what you’re wearing on your feet.
  • Local laws can still prohibit barefoot driving. Though no state authority bans driving without shoes, some cities, towns, or other municipalities may have their own regulations against it. If you want to be absolutely sure, you will therefore have to check the laws in each area where you intend to drive without shoes. While this is easy enough for your hometown or city, it could be quite a project for a cross-country drive.

Bearing all these facts in mind, it’s clear that there are no statewide prohibitions on driving barefoot. It’s also not mentioned by most municipalities — and in law, if something isn’t prohibited, it’s legal by default.

Despite the technical legality, you should put some thought into whether or not you should choose to drive barefoot. If your car has metal pedals, or the pedals are made of some other slick substance, it’s probably best to wear shoes with stable, grippy soles. On the other hand, driving with flip-flops on is extremely hazardous. It’s no joke when they get hung up under the pedals, forcing the brake pedal to stay up when you need to be stomping it down. The same is true for a variety of other footwear types; even wedge heels have been known to be problematic. If your choice is a pair of these shoes or none at all, go with none at all.

Another less-mentioned danger that comes with driving with bare feet is the effect of water. The sole of the human foot naturally has a surprising amount of grip — unless it’s wet. Then it becomes very easy for a foot to slip, even if a car has rubberized pedals. Therefore, if you’ve just walked barefoot through a rainstorm, gotten out of a pool or other water, or slopped through a puddle on your way to the car, you need to be sure to dry your feet before even turning on the car. Doing so might save you from some scary surprises and possibly even an accident.

With these caveats in mind, you should be able to drive barefoot as safely as you can with sensible shoes. You won’t have to worry about being cited for negligence, careless driving, reckless driving or anything similar, as long as you actually do drive safely.  Nevertheless, we recommend driving with a sensible pair of close-toed shoes as that appears to be the safest practice.

Don't forget to share!