Know the Law: Electric Bikes and You
Our years in the electric bike industry have taught us that e-bikes are not just the latest craze in biking, they are here to stay. Because of that, local leaders are working more and more to incorporate electric bike-friendly legislation into their local codes. Recently, we published an article about the exciting and positive changes to the new e-bike laws in California and New York.
Let’s get you up to speed on the good news, especially how and where you can ride your electric bike. The short answer is virtually everywhere – unless you’re buying an expensive illegal motorcycle-fast electric bike. So, let’s break it down further.
Too fast to be legal? Dang, what a bummer. http://t.co/Id3wCACO
— Nancy Giovannini (@ngiova) March 28, 2012
At the Federal level, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) offers the definition of an e-bike via the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The CPSC defines a low-speed electric bicycle as:
“… a two- or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 h.p.), whose maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 mph. (Public Law No. 107-319, section 1, 116 Stat. 2776 (2002))”
This law is also known as HR 727. Since this is a CPSC ruling, it only defines what safety requirements are required to sell an electric bicycle; it in no way legislates their usage. Therefore, this legislation only applies to companies that sell electric bikes or electric bike kits for that matter.
Now, at the Federal level, under Title 23, Chapter 2, §217:
(h) Use of Motorized Vehicles.— Motorized vehicles may not be permitted on trails and pedestrian walkways under this section, except for—…
(4) when State or local regulations permit, electric bicycles…
For the purposes of this statute, an electric bicycle is “any bicycle or tricycle with a low-powered electric motor weighing under 100 pounds, with a top motor-powered speed not in excess of 20 miles per hour.” In short, at the federal level there are some restrictions defining e-bikes for the purposes of sales, but the decision to allow e-bikes is specifically delegated to the state or local level.
So, how do you find out what exactly the laws are in your state regarding electric bikes? You have a few options.
- Wikipedia has a rather comprehensive list of information available on e-bikes, including a state-by-state list. You can check it out here. Of course, Wikipedia is a community-generated site so it is dependent on third-party contributions. It is always best to find the information on Wikipedia then refer to the accompanying source linked to the content.
- The League of American Bicyclists has compiled and continuously updates a comprehensive list of bike laws by state. Perhaps this is a better source for up-to-date legislation by state.
Depending on what state you live in, you may not find a ton of information specifically related to electric bikes in this list, but there is a lot of great information regarding general biking laws, such as which states require a helmet and which don’t, as well as in which states it is legal to “drink & bike”, or operate an e-bike without drivers license. To our knowledge no states require a drivers license for e-bikes, but that could always change as companies begin to sell 1000+ Watt e-bikes. Another interesting bicycle law that varies from state to state is the STOP SIGN. Some states require a complete bicycle stop and others do not. Do you stop?
Another source of e-bike information is your state’s motor vehicle department website. Visit this site, choose your state and get a copy of the local state vehicle codes. For example, Leeds Bicycle Solutions operates out of Utah, so our code can be found here . Only a recently updated official state vehicle code will contain all the latest changes to the laws. Other websites may have edited versions of the state codes, which may not contain the sections that apply to e-bikes. Or the version may simply be out of date.
Start with definitions, and look for definitions of various things. Bicycle, Scooter, Motorcycle, Moped, Bicycle with helper motor, Motor driven cycle, etc. Figure out which one describes your e-bike best.
Then, usually in a completely different section of the codes, look for rules that pertain to getting it a license plate or registration or not.
If your state requires you register it, chances are you may need to have a drivers license to operate it on the public roadways. So look in those sections of your vehicle codes to see what kind of license you need if any. Look up the definition of public road too. It could matter.
Finally, look for any other codes that apply to operation of the type of vehicle you have. You may find that helmets are required for those under 18, etc. Remember, if you have decided that your vehicle fits the definition of “bicycle” then ALL laws applying to bicycles apply to you. So you might need a light after dark. You might be required to have pedals (some motorcycle designs have used a bicycle frame to essentially make a scooter). You may or may not be legal to ride on the sidewalk, or the hiking trail. But the best advice is to keep your bicycle a bicycle by keeping the speed down and keeping bicycle pedals on your bike. This type of bike will always be a bike even with a motor on it.
We make every effort to ensure that our 250 Series E-Bike Kit, and 500 Series E-Bike Kit, are always compliant with e-bike laws. We are asked occasionally by uninformed customers why our motors don’t go over 20 miles per hour, or why they don’t have higher wattage. The answer is two-fold.
First, ensuring that our bikes are compliant with the above regulations, basically ensures that they are LEGAL ELECTRIC BICYCLES, which entitles our riders to the same rights and responsibilities as other non-motorized cyclists.
Second, on a typical e-bike frame, 750 or 1,000 Watts is going to be excessively powerful; in practice, 250-500 watts is sufficient for most riders. 20 miles per hour is a reasonable speed limit and that speed is legally increased with your active pedaling. Some European countries limit e-bike speeds to 15 miles per hour; these models tend to feel under-powered on US roads.
While many customers who haven’t yet tested an e-bike wonder if these speeds will be enough for them, nearly all are pleasantly surprised once they give their new e-bike a ride and feel the power. We challenge you to see for yourself, by checking out one of our 250series kits, or 500series kits.
It is our hope that with better education and understanding of electric bikes and with greater responsibility for not producing e-bikes that go beyond bicycling capabilities that we will no longer see tweets like these below.
Oh, there the helmet is, it's an electric bike apparently, aren't they illegal?
— Deb Beelitz (@the_blitzer) February 25, 2013
.@BrooklynSpoke Monday I watched illegal heavy electric motorcycle speed down busy 5th Av bike lane, beeping at human-powered cycles to move
— James Wagner (@wagnerblog) December 1, 2015
— Alex Goldmark (@alexgoldmark) March 13, 2014