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.
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.
|Iowa||New Mexico||Washington D.C.|
|Kansas||New York||Puerto Rico|
|Kentucky||North Carolina||American Samoa|
|Louisiana||North Dakota||American Virgin Islands|
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.)
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.