E-Bike Laws: Throwing the Book at ‘Em
As you’ve probably figured out by now, the man is always trying to bring us down. If something is too much fun, it’s probably illegal. So it turns out in the world of electric bikes as well. Depending on where in the world you live, the e-bike you’re considering might actually be illegal and could earn you fines and a confiscated bicycle. Another annoying thing is that a bike designed to comply with the laws of another territory could be limited in some way (such as speed), for no good reason, when taking your local laws into account.
While this article should not be taken as legal advice (since I’m not a lawyer, thank goodness), I will provide a broad overview of e-bike legislation for the EU and U.S. It is, however, very important that you check your local laws. Even though your e-bike may be legal according to federal or state law, it may violate the by-laws of your local town or parish. It may also be that motor vehicle laws apply to your e-bike, depending on how a “motor vehicle” is defined in the laws that apply to you. This might mean that you need a license and registration in order to ride your e-bike; you can be fined (or worse) for driving on a public road without a license. Scary stuff indeed.
Born in the USA
U.S. e-bike laws can be pretty convoluted, thanks to the various state and regional laws. While you may be complying with the law in your town, if you ride over the border to the next town or move into another state things may be very different.
The first bit of relevant law actually only applies to dealers who are selling e-bikes. You see, for legal and insurance purposes they have be clear about the difference between an e-bike and, for example, an electric motorcycle.
The basic definition of an e-bike, as per the Consumer and Product Safety Act HR727, is a vehicle with two or three wheels that has fully-operable pedals and a power rating of no more than 750W. Such a vehicle may also not exceed 20 miles per hour on level ground while carrying a 170-pound rider.
All this law does, though, is tell the dealer whether he’s allowed to sell something as an “e-bike”; it doesn’t automatically mean that you can take to the streets with it.
The answer to whether you can ride your e-bike on a public street or not most likely lies in your local traffic laws.
Whether a bicycle is electric or not, it still has to obey certain traffic laws that apply to it. But if your local laws define an e-bike as a motor vehicle, you better get clarity from you local traffic authority first – before you find out you’re breaking the law when a local traffic cop actually pulls you over.
You should get an unabridged version of your local traffic laws directly from the traffic authority. If you refer to an abridged version, the specific laws that apply to your e-bike may not be there, which means you’re basically playing with fire.
The important thing to determine is how the state or local legal region defines your specific e-bike. Its speed and nature may push it into a different legal category than “e-bike”, meaning that you’ll have to comply with a different set of laws. Your laws may make no mention of e-bikes at all (pretty likely at this point), so you’ll have to see which of the existing categories may fit it and then comply with those laws.
All sorts of rules may apply. You may need to wear a helmet, be a certain age, or even have to apply or have a certain license.
If you head over to Wikipedia’s e-bike law page you’ll see a table outlining different state laws with regards to e-bikes. For example, in Alabama your e-bike is classified as a motorcycle and requires a helmet and license. In California, on the other hand, it’s a motorized bicycle and you only need a helmet, depending on your bike’s power class.
Now, this is Wikipedia, so only use it to get a general idea of state laws regarding your bike. As I said before, check with local authorities for the right information.
Welcome to Europe
Europe has had a love affair with the bicycle for decades. For many in European cities, the bicycle represents the only way to get around. It’s no surprise then that e-bikes have proven popular as well. On the other hand, since bicycles are such an important part of transport in Europe, the EU has actually issued some very specific e-bike laws. All EU member states are expected to implement these laws in their respective international legislations.
The good news is that if something is classified as an e-bike it is exempt from type approval. The bad news is that the EU definition of an e-bike is pretty restrictive.
First of all, the maximum power an e-bike may have is 250W, and it may not exceed 16 miles per hour. Compare this to the U.S., where e-bikes in many states can have as much as 750W of continuous power.
The other big difference is that the bike is not allowed to run on electrical power only; there is no independent throttle at all. While a U.S. e-bike can have a twist throttle and work even without you pedaling, in the EU this would be completely illegal and the vehicle would likely be seen as a motorcycle.
This is all fine for Europe, but if you are an American consumer, keep an eye out for Euro imports that are handicapped in this way. There’s nothing wrong with using a EU-standard bike, but make sure you know what you’re getting.
Staying Out of Trouble
While it is very important that you are well-versed in your local e-bike laws, you have to deal with the reality that your local police person is not necessarily going to be. The best strategy is to not draw attention to yourself. Many e-bikes are at first glance indistinguishable from a regular bike, especially when just rolling past. As long as you aren’t riding up a steep hill without pedaling or popping wheelies at every opportunity, most cops are not going to give you a second look. Even if it isn’t mandated, wear a helmet. Obey bicycle traffic rules and generally act like an upstanding citizen. As long as you do this, there should be no reason for any law enforcement officer to hassle you. If it does come to that, don’t argue with a cop. Accept your ticket with good grace and then dispute it either at your DMV or in court, if you have to. Getting difficult with the police never ends well for Joe Public. If you keep your nose clean, however, you should have years of trouble-free e-bike riding.