Pedal-assisted bicycles and the Law
Electric Bike Action casts a very wide net over the universe of electric-powered two-wheelers. We throw our collective legs over everything from bikes like the tire-smoking, electric-powered Zero motorcycle to the pedal-assist cruiser your grandmother could pedal to her weekly bridge match. While categorizing all these bikes into neat subcultures might seem like an impossible task, American lawmakers have already done the work for us, and it is a pretty logical division of power, so to speak.
MOTORCYCLE OR BICYCLE?
Lawmakers have drawn the line between electric motorcycles and power-assisted bicycles by comparing one component—where you put your feet. On a motorcycle, this component is called a “footpeg,” and on a power-assisted bicycle, it is called a “pedal.” Footpegs equal a motorcycle; pedals equal a bicycle.
Apparently, sensing the ability of some ingenious type to find a hole in that description, lawmakers in a preventative action closed that loophole in less time than it takes to explain what a mid-mount motor is. The pedals, to be real pedals, have to be connected to a crank, and that crank has to be connected to a drivetrain so that the power-assisted bicycle rider is able to move the bike along under 100 percent human power.
Another loophole closer that may be in place in your state is the e-bike’s top speed. Many state laws are written to put a maximum speed on how fast an e-bike can propel its rider without pedaling. The most common number is 20 miles per hour, but your state might add or shave some speed to that number.
The footpeg criterion takes all the guesswork out of identifying a motorcycle. The law doesn’t care if your motorcycle uses a four-stroke engine, a two-stroke engine, a rotary engine, a steam engine or an electric motor. If you can’t pedal it, you fall under the jurisdiction of the laws, licensing and registration that apply to motorcycles in your state. And, the laws vary greatly from state to state. An example of this is motorcycle rider helmet laws.
Forty-seven states have a helmet law for motorcyclists. Of those, 19 have a universal helmet law that requires helmets for all riders, 28 require helmets for specific riders, and three states (Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire) do not require a helmet to be worn. Our point is that if you are riding an electric-powered motorcycle, you need to be well-versed in your state’s motor vehicle department’s rules and regulations. Your electric-powered motorcycle, in the eyes of Johnny Law, is the same as a gas-guzzling Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special.
Your electric-assist bicycle doesn’t totally fit under the bicycle umbrella in the eyes of lawmakers. Again, you have to check with your state, because rules of the road vary wildly from state to state. In California, bicycle riders over 18 are not required to wear a helmet, but all e-bike riders, regardless of age, are required to wear a helmet (a bicycle helmet, not a motorcycle helmet). Speaking of age, in California, a rider needs to be 16 years of age or older to operate an e-bike on the street. Sorry, kids, no riding dad’s e-bike to school.
To help you ask the right questions about e-bike operation in your state, we spoke to Jaime Coffee of the California Highway Patrol’s Community Outreach and Media Relations department and asked her the most common e-bike questions in regards to the law.
EBA: Are e-bikes permitted to use bike lanes?
Jamie: So long as the e-bike meets the definition of a motorized bicycle found in California Vehicle Code Section (CVCS) 406, yes, it would be permitted in a bike lane. However, there may be local ordinances that prohibit or further restrict usage.
EBA: Are e-bikes restricted to bike lanes?
Jamie: No, they are not. To be operated on the roadway, the operator needs to adhere to CVCS 21202 for Operation on Roadway. Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway, except under any of the following situations:
(1) When overtaking and passing another bicycle or vehicle proceeding in the same direction.<
(2) When preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway.
(3) When reasonably necessary to avoid conditions (including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards or substandard-width lanes) that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge, subject to the provisions of section. For purposes of this section, a “substandard-width lane” is a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.
(4) When approaching a place where a right turn is authorized.
We didn’t have to ask Officer Coffee if pedal-assist bikes are allowed on freeways. First, who would want to ride an e-bike on a California freeway? Not any of us. Second, every freeway on-ramp has a sign that answers this question for you: “No motorized bicycles permitted.”
BIKES LANES VS. BIKE PATHS
Maybe the most confusing legal issue facing the e-bike rider is the difference between a bike lane and bike path. A bike lane is a marked section of roadway shared with motor vehicles. As Officer Coffee explained, an e-bike rider is welcome to use a bike lane.
Bike paths are bicycle routes that are designed and constructed outside of existing roadways. Bike paths can link communities, follow a river, offer kids a way to school, follow an old rail line and, in general, separate bicycle riders from motor vehicle traffic. This is when the e-bike rider is no longer grouped in with human-powered bicycle riders in the eyes of the law.
Bike paths pretty much universally prohibit the use of motorized vehicles. Still, you will need to research your area. A path near our office specifically says “no motorized bicycles.” Yet, when we tracked down an employee who claimed to work enforcement on the path, he said that our e-bike was allowed. Another multi-community path about 25 miles away has signs that read “no motor vehicles.” By definition, an e-bike that meets the standards in the CVC is not a motor vehicle.
Several e-bike companies claim that federal rulings allow e-bike-assisted bicycles to be classified as a consumer product, and that they are specifically not motor vehicles as far as the law goes. The text of the bill is at below. If you read the bill is appears that the California law is not correct barring e-bikes from some bike paths. Recently an association has been formed in California (CalEBA – California Electric Bicycle Association) with the support of three of the largest electric bicycle companies and Shimano. CalEBA is currently working to clarify the law concerning low-speed electric bicycles. Larry Pizzi of Currie Tech, a member of CalEBA, explains the issue well. “I’d like to point out the ambiguity in the CVC 406 as follows;
CVC 406 was originally written into the vehicle code in the middle 1970’s to address mopeds with internal combustion engines and then in the early 2000’s after the federal public law which describes a “low-speed electric bicycle” was published, 406 was split into sections “(a)” describing mopeds and electric mopeds and section “(b)” was added to address what federal law describes as a low-speed electric bicycle.
The problem comes as a result of the California code referring to both (a) and (b) as “motorized bicycles”. Clearly a Moped does not belong on a dedicated bike path or off road trail that allows bicycling, but there should be no reason a “low-speed electric bicycle” as defined by federal law, should not be allowed. In fact, the federal law states that it supersedes state or local laws that may be more restrictive.
The answer is to get the language in the vehicle code changed, and it is expected that a bill will be introduced in the Assembly in this legislative session to accomplish just that. In the interim, I would suggest that riders print a copy of the federal public law and present it in the event they are stopped and told that their compliant e-bike is not allowed.
As e-bikes become more popular and the misunderstandings about them resolved, I’m confident that they will be allowed anywhere normal bikes are allowed. In the interim, we continue to rationally approach lawmakers as situations present, in an effort to ensure riders of low-speed electric bicycles the same rights that normal bicycle riders have nationwide.”
If your e-bike is equipped for off-road riding, most land managers think of their trails as bike paths (shared with hikers and equestrians) rather than bike lanes. That means motorized vehicles (gas or electric) are not welcome on these trails.
The International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA), the largest organization representing mountain bikers to land managers and policy makers says, “Mountain biking is human-powered, and using any power source to assist or replace muscle power means that the activity isn’t mountain biking and requires different management strategies. Therefore, trails that are not managed for motorized use should not be open for bikes that feature any kind of non-human power source.”
So where does that leave an off-road e-bike rider? In California, they are welcome on any off-highway-vehicle-designated trail. Many thousands of miles of dirt roads are open to street-legal vehicles, and the e-bike is legal on the road, so it makes sense that this would be true for e-bikes, but again, check before you ride. They may be welcome at private mountain bike parks, operated by ski resorts during the summer months—although that is hard to imagine, because these parks make their income selling lift tickets. Your e-bike gets around that one.
We are not attorneys, and we are not giving you legal advice. This story is a guideline for riders investigating the rules of the road for e-bikes and electric motorcycles. Due to the complexities and differences in state rules and regulations, you need to do more digging. The best place to start is your local Department of Motor Vehicles. They will furnish you with brochures that deal with the type of vehicle you plan to ride. Wikipedia has an informative, if not totally complete, chart and state-by-state legal information on e-bikes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/electric_ bicycle_laws.
We found this site useful to see what a mess the state laws are in, with little to no agreement between states, and as a jumping-off point in our investigations.
WHAT EXACTLY DOES THE FEDERAL LAW SAY?
107th Congress of the United States of America
To amend the Consumer Product Safety Act to provide that low-speed electric bicycles are consumer products subject to such Act. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives o f the United States of America in Congress assembled.
SECTION 1. CONSUMER PRODUCT SAFETY ACT
The Consumer Product Safety Act (15 U.S.C. 2051 et seq.) is amended by adding at the end the following: Low-speed electric bicycles.
(a) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, low-speed electric bicycles are consumer products within the meaning of section 3(a)(1) and shall be subject to the Commission regulations published at section 1500.18(a)(12) and part 1512 of title 16, Code of Federal Regulations.
(b) For the purpose of this section, the term “low-speed electric bicycle” means 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.
(c) To further protect the safety of consumers who ride low-speed electric bicycles, the Commission may promulgate new or amended requirements applicable to such vehicles as necessary and appropriate.
(d) This section shall supersede any State law or requirement with respect to low-speed electric bicycles to the extent that such State law or requirement is more stringent than the Federal law or requirements referred to in subsection (a).
SEC. 2. MOTOR VEHICLE SAFETY STANDARDS.
For purposes of motor vehicle safety standards issued and enforced pursuant to chapter 301 of title 49, United States Code, a low-speed electric bicycle (as defined in section 38(b) of the Consumer Product Safety Act) shall not be considered a motor vehicle as defined by section 30102(6) of title 49, United States Code.