10 Common Illegal Alterations Made to Cars

Editor’s Note: The following article is from Criminal Justice Degrees Guide and has been reprinted here with permission.

It’s a fact, we love cars. But we love them even more when they look and sound nice too. If you want to have the sharpest-looking car or meanest-sounding truck on the block, you may have to make some alterations to get these desired results. What many drivers don’t know is that some of the coolest and most popular car modifications are actually illegal. The rules and regulations on vehicle alterations tend to vary from state to state, but these 10 illegal alterations are some of the most common ones out there.

1. Window tinting

Dark window tinting is one of the most common illegal alterations made to cars. Every state has different laws regarding window tinting and regulations, including light transmittance and location of tinting. Some states are stricter about tinting the driver’s side window and the windshield. For the most part, a light tint is the best way to go and will keep you out of trouble with law enforcement.

2. License plate frames

Customizing license plates and the frames that keep them in place is very popular. It may seem harmless to have a customized frame that advertises a dealership or your favorite sports team, but you can actually get pulled over and ticketed if the frame covers up the state name or numbers in any way. Tinted and reflective-plate covers are also illegal in many states.

3. Exhaust

Adding a performance exhaust to your vehicle can make it more powerful, faster, and louder than before. Drivers who install a new exhaust system may have a noisier and meaner sounding vehicle, but you’ll also run the risk of being ticketed if it’s too loud and causes any noise complaints.

4. HID headlamps

Drivers who want a customized look for their car might be tempted to get a HID headlamps kit to install, but this popular alteration is illegal in all 50 states. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that no HID headlamps meet the federal photometric standards, so if you install these you may end up with a pricey ticket.

5. Undercarriage lighting

Undercarriage lighting is a popular, but often illegal alteration made to cars. Adding bright neon or LED lights may be illegal in your state, especially if it interferes with the front and rear lighting. Some states have restricted certain colors and color combinations that might cause confusion or distractions on the road.

6. Lifts

Lifting the suspension or frame and body of your vehicle can drastically change the way your car looks and drives. As popular as this alteration is, your state may have a limit on how high you can go. Some states set their height restrictions based on maximum headlight and taillight heights and others measure by maximum bumper heights. Depending on the state you live in or drive through, you could be ticketed for an excessive lift.

7. Muffler delete

Drivers who want to increase the horse power and noise level of their vehicle may consider installing muffler delete pipes. But it’s important to know that every state has different laws relating to muffler delete alterations, but for the most part, it’s illegal. Most states require all vehicles have a working muffler to prevent excessively loud or unusual noises, but adding a muffler delete or similar device to your vehicle is illegal.

8. Studded tires

Many drivers install studded tires to get better traction on slippery roads during the winter season, but these tires can also destroy pavement. Even though studded tires have been approved by the federal government and received the DOT rating, some states do not allow them on their roads or only at certain times of the year.

9. Off-road lamps

High intensity off-road lamps are very bright and very illegal in some states. These 100-watt (or more) lights are often attached to the grille of trucks or mounted on the roof of vehicles. Off-road lamps might help you find your way through the dark wilderness, but they are completely unnecessary for everyday driving. The range, intensity, and light patterns of these lamps are extremely distracting on the road and can cause danger to oncoming traffic.

10. Cold air intake

This is a common alteration made to mostly muscle cars and four-cylinder import vehicles. Drivers install cold air intake systems for various reasons, but one of the most common is to produce more power from the engine. But this increase in power can result in an increase in fuel consumption and emissions. Your car may seem like it’s running better, but if you’re exceeding the legal emissions limits, you could be in trouble with the law.

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11 Responses to “10 Common Illegal Alterations Made to Cars”

  1. lonnie pfeifer says:

    WTH? Am I really reading a blog on the NMA sight? I have been an NMA member for years and NEVER have I read such a pandering piece of blathering BS as this! If this organization has sunk to the level of merely explaining to me that what I may have done to my car is ILLEGAL, rather than working with me on a strategy to repeal or "subvert" these repressive and unnecessary intrusions upon my rights then perhaps it's time for me to rethink my membership? Surely my dues can be put to better use than this?!

    • chip bell says:

      I was thinking the exact same thing. More pandering bull shit why do organisations do this?

    • Gary says:

      If you are making illegal alterations to your vehicle you deserve to be punished for it. Driving a motor vehicle is a privilege not a right.

  2. Al says:

    All of these make sense except for number 10. A CAI only affects the amount and temperature of the air going into the car. More, and cooler, air should have no affect on emissions on a car that has no other modifications to it. The different a CAI makes is small and not much different than replacing a dirty air filter with a new one.

    • Erk says:

      I agree, a cold air intake should not be worse for the environment. In fact, it would be better. The colder air will be denser, meaning more oxygen. This higher amount of oxygen means more complete combustion. This means more power for a certain amount of fuel. This also means more of that fuel becomes CO2 instead of CO or un-used fuel. Sure CO2 isn’t good, but it’s better for people around the cars than CO and fuel in the air. Seeing as the incoming air is colder, it also means less NOx emissions, which we really don’t want in the air. So not only does it increase power, but it helps reduce emissions. The thing is, many times this might cause the sensor to inject more fuel, or people may tamper with the ecu to add more fuel to make more use of that incoming air.

      Although, most cars will already pull air from a cold location outside of the engine compartment, which is what a cold air intake does. So there would be virtually no change. The only thing someone could do to make a significant change is put in a short ram intake, but that will pull in hot air from the engine compartment, which would usually decrease performance.

  3. Eric says:

    HID headlights aren't illegal if they are the real type that come with the car. Also I doubt very much that a typical cold-air intake is in any danger of putting somebody over emissions standards.

  4. Hocine says:

    Keep your tires properly fanlited. Roll your windows up to reduce air resistance. Do not pull anything. Do not attach anything to vechile which may create more air resistance bikes, suitcases on top. Remove all unnecessary weight from car. Drive between 55 miles per hour and 60. Every mile per hour over and under that range reduces engine efficiency. Use cruise control to reduce un-needed variations in acceleration. Do not let the car idle, just turn it off.

  5. danwat1234 says:

    #10 is bull; A Cold air intake just grabs air further away from the engine, so the air is cooler. There is a sensor near the air box that measures air pressure/air temperature and adjusts the amount of fuel that goes into the cylinders so the air:fuel mixture stays constant.

    A cold air intake is the same thing as driving below sea level where air is more dense, or driving in the winter time. It won't effect emissions tests at all. Will not hurt MPG but won't help either.

  6. lavin says:

    4,5,7, and 10. Are all misleading/incorrect.

    HID Headlamps are only illegal if the angle is incorrect, the color is incorrect, or it is too bright. Otherwise they are completely legal EVERYWHERE in the U.S

    5 is misleading due to state laws, but in general, all colors but blue and red are okay.

    7 Is basically only true if you live in california or another state with super strict automotive rules. The only exhaust modification that is illegal, is usually one that is louder than stock. And most of the time cops will not pull you over for it.

    10 is just hilariously wrong. You must be some kind of dumb to think cold air intake would be illegal. Your source must come from the garbage because CAI only improves fuel economy , HP, and torque. With absolutely no downsides.

    Please research before you post.

  7. jerry says:

    Hi. you know if it’s illegal to bring tailight headlight or smoked, in the state of new mexico

  8. Eileen Jones says:

    I have a Giants electronic logo that lights up with motion…I won’t put it in the rear window because it might be distracting , but would like to know , if I put it in the side window , is it legal in NJ?