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In many American reality TV shows about fixing, modifying, or restoring cars, one can see the mechanics just taking a half-built car on the road for a test drive.

For example, in the first episode of season 4 of Car Masters: Rust to Riches the guys from the Gotham Garage (in Tumecula, California) take an unfinished car without doors, windows, license plates, or anything else to the public roads for a drive. Without any proper inspection or legalisation.

Can you really do that in the United States, or is this just staged for the show, and really the roads are closed?

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    Anyone can do anything, but not everything is legal. If that's what you're asking, maybe law.stackexchange.com is the right place to ask it?
    – Kyralessa
    Oct 1, 2022 at 20:07
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    This definitely belongs on Law.SE.
    – Tom
    Oct 1, 2022 at 22:33
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    I think there's enough overlap with this site - you only have to look at the answers, which seem to be based around the fact that arrangements are commonly made for filming.
    – komodosp
    Oct 6, 2022 at 7:11

3 Answers 3

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The answer which is correct but is not being given directly is:

No, you cannot drive "anything" on the roads in the US. This is a construct of television; reality TV is not showing you anything real. It is all scripted. There is no guerilla filming involved in anything which makes it onto a network or Netflix, everything has proper legal clearance.

All US states require some form of registration and insurance coverage on any vehicle which is used on public roads, even farm vehicles which are taken on public roads require insurance and some type of registration. The driver must also be licensed in the proper vehicle class (not necessarily other classes - ie you can hold a motorcycle license but not be licensed to drive a motor vehicle).

Some special vehicles, like an imported right hand drive vehicle from Japan for example, a "dealer vehicle", or a "historic vehicle" may not be able to be registered on a level which allows them to be driven at a state level (in California at least) but if it has passed a certain degree of the safety inspection, may be granted a day permit by dmv to move on the streets by its own power, same with a vehicle which needs mechanical work in order to pass inspection and must be taken to a shop.

On private property (even a parking lot), you can drive anything allowed by the property owner but the venue (ie a race track) may have their own insurance, require a special kind of license and for example, fees or an official event registration for participants which includes waivers regarding potential bodily harm. An example would be the 24 hours of lemons. That is to say, you may not have a commercial license, but could still hold a private license with like the SCCA or an organization which races go-karts but does not require participants to be of a state-wide legal driving age to do so.

You cannot, legally, drive just anything on the roads in the US.

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  • While all of this is true (except the comment about reality TV - all of that is real, just like WWE!), that doesn't mean that the average Joe doesn't do some of the things shown on these TV shows. My wife first drove (a road car, not farm tractor) at age 12 - at her Mom's offering. Our eldest first drove at age 13. Many home mechanics will test drive custom vehicles long before they're officially licensed, etc. Technically not legal, but it happens regularly.
    – FreeMan
    Dec 13, 2022 at 17:25
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It’s not legal, but also completely possible to do it briefly without getting caught.

The penalties for operating a motor vehicle on public roads without proper inspections, licensing, insurance, tax and fee payments, etc. could range from a fine to impoundment of the vehicle and jail time (more likely in the range of days to months). A fine is most likely, especially if there are no related moving violations or crimes committed.

The most inconvenient thing about getting caught might be that the police would not let you drive the vehicle back to where you keep it, so you’d have to pay for a tow truck.

It is possible that the producers of the show arranged for special clearance for filming or testing from the local police. In California, especially in the Los Angeles area, it’s not at all uncommon for public areas to be used for filming once the proper arrangements, permits, and fees have been taken care of.

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  • So it is better to assume, for a netflix-produced show, that it was all done legally, with permits prepared, and filmed on a closed road?
    – TK-421
    Oct 2, 2022 at 19:30
  • @TK-421 I don’t know which is better to assume. I answered because I know whether it’s legal or not, which is how I read your question. If you want to know what they actually did in this case, there I can only guess. Oct 3, 2022 at 0:20
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    @ToddWilcox It's probably safe to assume, since the production company wouldn't have been able to get the insurance if they were doing something illegal (either that or the insurance would have been void). Also, if they released the TV Show/Movie, then that would be evidence that they broke the law (if the event they didn't get the permits/licenses to begin with).
    – zmike
    Dec 9, 2022 at 21:29
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It was all done with legal permits and probably police supervision. I once rode in a WWII armored vehicle from an airport to a museum. The museum director arranged for special permits to do this and we had a police escort the whole way with lights flashing to reduce the chances of an accident. No lawyer is going to let a production company film and televise themselves doing something illegal.

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