Answers to the most frequently asked questions about electric bikes and the laws surrounding them.
This e-bike article is a collaboration with several Bike Law network members, Bryan Waldman, Charlie Thomas, Kurt Holzer, and Lauri Boxer-Macomber. We will continue to update it as new legislation and electric bike product is released. Last updated: September 19, 2017
Across the country these days Electric Bikes (E-Bikes sometimes referred to as “pedal-assist bikes”) are at the center of discussions and some controversy among riders, law enforcement, legislators, manufacturers, and retailers. It seems every day all of us interested in cycling are learning more about the capabilities and issues with E-bikes. In this article, we at Bike Law introduce you to E-bikes. Our goal is to answer some of the basic questions about them and the legal issues related to their use.
We do note there is an important distinction between E-bikes used on roads and the issue of trail access for E-bikes or E-mountain bikes. Impacts on trails, conflicts between users, and trail access all present thorny legal and policy issues that we do not attempt to address here.
Our general policy perspective, as far as road use of E-bikes, is that they have a place in the panoply of two-wheel transportation and recreation options. But there are issues of safety, responsibility, and rules that are still in the process of being addressed by legislators. Policy makers and cycling advocates have a wide variety of views that we believe will eventually get worked through to allow E-bikes users to co-exist comfortably in the cycling landscape.
Ahead you’ll find the answers to the most frequently asked questions about electric bikes and the current laws surrounding them.
What Is an E-Bike?
E-bikes are bikes that have an electric motor that is generally powered up to 750 watts. Many e-bikes are powered by pedals that propel the bicycle with or without the help of the electric motor. E-bikes travel various speeds, but most e-bikes fall into classes that generally do not allow users to exceed a top speed of somewhere around 20-28 miles per hour.
Is an E-bike a Moped, a Bicycle or Something Else?
If you are confused, you are not alone. E-bikes are a relatively new type of transportation. They come in different models and varieties and do not always fit into one neat definition. In some states, transportation and traffic laws have evolved and now expressly define what is meant by the term “e-bike.” In addition, many states have gone further and classified various types of e-bikes and created specific rules and regulations applicable to each class. In most of the United States, however, explicit laws governing e-bikes are non-existent and e-bikes are often treated as mopeds and other motorized vehicles, regardless of their speed, power, and other characteristics.
Why Ride an E-Bike?
Although e-bikes is a much-debated topic, there are a whole host of financial, health, environment, transportation, social and practical reasons why people choose to use e-bikes. Some of the top ones include the reasons cited below.
- E-Bikes Save Money
E-bikes are often much less expensive to purchase and maintain than cars. An average e-bike generally costs in the $2,000 range, though e-bikes can be made or purchased for several hundred dollars and some sell for amounts in the five digits. As noted by one writer in this article in Bicycling Magazine, one study shows that the average cost of operating an e-bike is a mere fraction of the annual cost of operating a motor vehicle ($390 v. $9,283).
- E-Bikes Can Have Positive Impacts on the Environment and Public Health
In situations where people are replacing their automobile trips with e-bikes trips, e-bikes can help mitigate traffic congestion, reduce emissions, improve air quality, and improve public health.
- E-Bikes Increase Accessibility
E-bikes make bicycling and the world more accessible to elderly persons, parents commuting or recreating with young children in tow, and people with physical and/or health limitations who may not be able to get themselves and their families around on bicycles without electric assistance.
- E-Bikes Can Make Roads Safer Roadways for Cyclists
Like them or not, the e-bike phenomenon is getting more bikes on roadways. As some studies show, having more bikes on the roadway increases bike visibility and public awareness of the presence of bicyclists on the roadway and arguably keeps all of us on bikes safer. Actually, cyclists keep city streets safer.
- E-Bikes Can Get You There Faster
E-bikes need not go all that fast to keep up with the average around-town speed of traffic. One study cited in that piece suggests that the average around-town speeds of cars and e-bikes are 18mph and 15mph, respectively.
- E-Bikes Help People to Spend More Time Biking With the Ones They Love
E-bikes can help “level the playing field” for couples, family members and friends that enjoy riding together but ride at different speeds on regular bicycles.
- E-Bikes Keep You From Sweating
E-bikes allow bicycle commuters to travel to and from work by bike without showing up looking and smelling like they came from the gym.
- E-Bikes Get People Moving
E-bikes can serve as a gateway device for getting people on bikes more often and using active transportation.
- E-Bikes Are Easy to Park
Unlike cars, it is easy to find parking for an e-bike and typically free.
- E-Bikes Are Fun
E-bikes are just plain fun. Participants in an e-bike study who were generally sedentary before the study reported e-bike riding “to be a blast,” and some even went on to buy e-bikes after the study. Similarly, in The Electric Bike Conundrum, Thomas Beller artfully reminds us not to lose sight of the magic of non-pedal assist bicycling (my favorite line is “the momentum you give is the momentum you get”), while also sharing the reasons why e-bikes are so seductive and give their users so much joy.
I’m Considering Purchasing an E-Bike, What Do I Need to Know?
The answer depends on the class of e-bike you purchase and the laws of your state. For example, in California, the law is clear that no license is required to operate a class 1, 2 or 3 e-bike and that a helmet is not required for class 1 and 2 e-bike users, but is required for class 3 users.
In contrast, in Maine, where e-bikes are not well defined and there is no classification system, e-bike users are often at a loss when it comes to what they must do and where they should ride to comply with the law. They must turn to the definitions for other modes of transportation and attempt to determine which rules and regulations apply to their e-bike.
How Do I Get More Information on the E-Bike Laws in My State?
Attorneys in the Bike Law network are always available to help you answer questions about e-bikes. In addition, we are presently in the process of developing state-specific information about e-bikes laws.
Current Bike Law E-bike articles
Updated September 6, 2017
A nationwide overview of e-bike legislation is also available from the National Conference of State Legislators. People for Bikes also publishes a substantial amount of state-specific information and guiding materials on e-bikes on its website. It should be noted, however, that while these outside sources are excellent resources, Bike Law is not suggesting that they are relied on as legal advice. Bike Law attorneys within this network cannot vouch for the accuracy of information published by other organizations and do not always agree with the legal interpretations set forth in others’ publications. Further, laws are always being updated, amended and reinterpreted, so the best way to get up-to-date advice on a specific e-bike issue is to talk to a licensed and competent bike attorney from the state where the issue arises.
What do the “Different Classes of E-Bikes” mean?
States have developed classification systems to help users, sellers and manufacturers understand what rules, regulations and laws apply to each of the varieties of e-bikes. While classifications vary from state to state, People for Bikes offers these three different types of e-bike classifications in its current template model legislation on e-bikes:
“Electric bicycle” shall mean a bicycle equipped with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts.
1. “Class 1 electric bicycle” or “low-speed pedal-assisted electric bicycle” shall mean a bicycle equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 20 miles per hour.
2. “Class 2 electric bicycle” or “low-speed throttle-assisted electric bicycle” shall mean a bicycle equipped with a motor that may be used exclusively to propel the bicycle, and that is not capable of providing assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 20 miles per hour.
3. Class 3 electric bicycle” or “speed pedal-assisted electric bicycle” shall mean a bicycle equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 28 miles per hour.
How Does an E-Bike Classification System Help?
Having an e-bike classification system in place allows states to regulate faster and powerful e-bikes more like motor vehicles and lower speed e-bikes more like regular bikes. It also helps users to understand their legal obligations when it comes to licensing, registration, insurance and behavior on public ways. See Clearing Up E-Bike Legislation in the United States.
Which States Are Good Examples to Turn to for E-Bike Classification Laws and Model E-Bike Legislation?
California was one of the first states to adopt an e-bike classification system. A history of the proposed and adopted law can be found here. CalBike, one of California’s leading bicycle advocacy organizations, does an excellent job on its website of which traffic laws apply to which classes of e-bikes, noting the difference between high and low-speed electric bikes and which laws apply to each class. People for Bikes has also partnered with CalBike to provide informational sheets on California’s e-bike laws for consumers and agencies.
Tennessee has also done an excellent job of defining e-bikes, developing a classification system, making the obligations of e-bike operators clear, developing labeling requirements for e-bikes and providing e-bike users with information about where they can ride. Tennessee e-bike legislation is available on the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s website.
Utah is also in the vanguard of e-bike legislation leaders. Like California and Tennessee, Utah has a classification system and differentiates e-bikes from mopeds. Learn more about the potential strengths and pitfalls of Utah’s legislation here.
Colorado just passed e-bike legislation this year. Bike Law’s Brian Weiss does an excellent job of explaining the e-bike legislation here.
Are E-Bikes Allowed at Races, Rides, Fondos and Other Bike Events?
While we all know that the electric assists in pro bike races are illegal, see 60 Minutes Investigates Hidden Motors and Pro Cycling, many small local and state rides encourage e-bikes as a way of making their event more inclusive and accessible to a wide range of riders. Before registering for an event or ride, it is a good idea for riders to check with event organizers to confirm whether e-bikes are allowed at the event and any state or event specific rules or regulations that may apply.
Likewise, organizers of bike races, rides, and other events are encouraged to consult with their insurance companies on how the inclusion of e-bikes at their events may impact insurance coverage and costs. Policy language, as always, is key. In states where e-bike laws are ambiguous, event organizers will want to make it explicitly clear in their policies and riders what types of bikes will and won’t be covered at the event. If there are any questions about this, talk to a Bike Law attorneys within our network are available for assistance.
What Should I Do If I am Involved in, or Witness, an E-Bike Crash?
As with any bicycle related crash, review our tips: What to Do If You Are Involved in a Bike Accident (no, Crash!)
What Happens If I Am Involved in an E-Bike Crash and the E-Bike Laws Are Unclear?
From a legal standpoint, when a crash involving an e-bike occurs in a state where e-bike laws are unclear, it leaves room for much debate among law enforcement officers, insurance adjusters, and attorneys. Without express laws governing e-bike rider conduct, it is easy for one to argue that an e-bike rider was subject to and did not follow a law or regulation that could have prevented the crash. However, the lack of clarity in the laws also may make it easier for an e-bike rider to justify a lane position, a parking choice or the absence of a license or insurance. If you have questions about a specific case, do not hesitate to contact us. If we do not have an attorney in our network who can help, we’ll work with you to get you to get what you need.
Photo Credit: Trek Bikes