This is an unofficial guide to the laws governing electric bicycles in the United States as of 2016. It was contributed by a guest writer The Smart Ped`aleck who was paid and remains unaffiliated with any electric bicycle company. It may be updated ongoing and is cited throughout with reference links and attributions at the end. It is designed to be an entertaining starting point for understanding the space, digging deeper and in turn choosing the best electric bike platform for your needs.
Federal vs. State
The Urge to Fly Under the Radar
Is Classification the Future?
In the United States electric bikes have seen slow but steady growth since the late 90’s and as a result, in 2001 congress was lobbied and passed the first and only bill to define ebikes in federal law. This law, 107-319, exempts electrified bicycles with operating pedals using motors under 750 watts limited to 20 mph from the legal definition of a motor vehicle.2.
Federal vs. State
Folks who are considering the purchase of an electric bicycle may have questions about their legal limits and those who already own one, are likely asking if they are relevant. Before one makes a judgment about the fairness or efficacy of the law, let’s dissect what the laws says, and gain a foothold of understanding.
Federal law defines the limits of a low speed electric bike, equating it to a bicycle, and bypassing the definition of a motor vehicle only “For purposes of motor vehicle safety standards…” which means that the manufacturers of these bicycles don’t have to meet federal equipment requirements, and are instead governed by the manufacturing requirements of the Consumer Product Safety Act. There is no mention of exemption from other federal, state, and local traffic laws, or exemption from the definition of a motor vehicle for other purposes.3 This means the law applies to the manufacturer’s product and sale, avoiding federal safety requirements applying to a motor vehicle such as brake lights, turn signals and braking specifications. The goal of the law was to give businesses a legal framework to define and sell low speed electric bikes without the more stringent Federal classification of a motor vehicle. Ebikes that meet the criteria are considered a “bicycle”, do not meet the definition of a motor vehicle, and will be regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The law also grants the commission authority to add safety requirements to this product. The Federal law supersedes all state laws that equate bicycles to ebikes where the state law is more stringent (lower limits) on power and speed.
How do the State Laws relate to the 2001 Federal Law? This is a difficult question to answer and know how they apply to you individually. From the Federal Law, one would hope that your purchased ebike is simply classified as a bicycle, with all the rights and privileges allotted to a normal cyclist. However, State Laws are confusing because they may be more restrictive in parts and add other requirements. About 30 U.S. states still have confusing regulations around them. Either the bikes are technically classified as mopeds or motor vehicles, or they have equipment, licensing or registration requirements that cause problems for riders. Thanks to the People-For-Bikes/Bicycle Product Suppliers Association (BPSA) partnership with local advocacy groups, they have been able to make the case for streamlining state regulations so that e-bikes are essentially treated like regular bicycles.4
For a Newbie to the electric bike world, with a dozen questions about the practical consequence of this 15 year old law, here is the skinny on ebike laws: What you are allowed to purchase and How they can be used:
Play it Safe, Make it Easy – E-bike manufacturers will offer you a large variety of styles, types, colors and utility, but the base specifications will be a bike producing less than 750 watts of power (1 horsepower = 746W) , and have its speed limited to 20mph on motor power alone. The majority of US ebikes meet that specification. Manufacturers do this for their own liability. Going this route assures you that your bike was built and sold legally. As a result, you will have about every privilege that a normal bicycle can expect. However, state and local laws may dictate reduced speeds and limited access to bike paths.
State and Local Laws dictate your use, but cannot constitutionally supersede the federal law – Any ebike purchased within the 750W/20mph limits has no fear of being under federal motor vehicle classification, nor can any state classify them a motor vehicle. The ebike is considered a ‘bicycle’ for consumer purposes. However, the State Laws on local bike paths and local thruways may prohibit or limit ebike access. When bike path signs use word such as ‘motor vehicles’ and ‘motorbikes’ , the laws are likely referring to gas-ICE motorbikes/dirt bikes/scooters, and not ebikes. Other references to ‘motorized bicycles’ or ‘motorized vehicles’ sound more inclusive and probably are intended for either ebikes or gas mopeds. If in doubt, you always have the option to pedal unassisted by completely powering your bike down. Even though Federal law grant ebikes a bicycle status, the common consensus found in my research allows local and state law to add additional regulation to pathway and road access, just because “it has a motor”. So the Federal laws protects the consumer from the burden of motor vehicle requirements, but not the restrictions to local and state right of ways enjoyed by all non-motored bicycles.
Your local state may have very definite rules as to what is an e-bike, what is a moped, and what is a motorcycle. While ebikes enthusiast don’t want the motor vehicle label, it is certain that each state will define some power level and speed where that classification will apply. Your best source of information is to go directly to your state motor vehicle department website, and get a copy of the your local state vehicle codes, with NO EDITING. Only recently updated official state vehicle codes will contain all the latest changes to the laws.1 For a link to your state MVA, look here:2 http://eco-wheelz.com/electric-bike-laws.php
Can I legally buy/build and ride an ebike that’s faster than 20 mph? Yes you can, but you need to know that the ebike is no longer considered equivalent to a bicycle and is subject to other state vehicular classifications. The definitions for electric bikes spanning 20-30mph, and 1-2 horsepower ranges, will vary from state to state, resulting in a no-man’s-land consensus about limits for motor vehicle definition. The common label for a 20-30mph, 2-wheeled vehicle with active pedals is a Moped. Other MVA labels include motor scooter, motorbike and dirt bike which may have equivalent power and speed performance, but do not have pedals to assist and move the vehicle.
State laws tend to intermix the source of power as either gasoline ICE or electric drive. This is unfortunate because that neutralizes the environmental advantage of an ebike over an ICE moped. It also misrepresents the contrast in power output levels between an ICE and electric motor system. 50cc gas mopeds/scooters have a 2.5-4 HP rating, while the 20+ mph electric bikes will be 1-2hp, and ride much closer to a normal bicycle compared to a gas powered, 2.5hp moped. E-mopeds will weigh 55-70lbs. Gas mopeds and scooters are typically over 120lbs. E-mopeds are still electric bikes that get valuable power assist from human pedal effort and are usually much quieter.
The federal law will not prohibit a motor vehicle label and additional restrictions given by the state. States will typically define e-mopeds in the 1000W range (1.5 hp) and speeds attainable to 30mph, and include a few requirements such as a helmet, eye protection, and a driver’s license. States may also require title, registration, and insurance for mopeds.
The higher power/speed ebikes will be sold under the following three categories:
Off-Road ebikes – Ebikes made and sold as “off road use only” are legal on private land and in off road trails, but may not technically legal to ride on the road.
DIY Kit ebikes – Ebikes that are home built with a DIY kit, and exceed the 750W/20mph definition, are also allowed to be bought, build, and ridden. DIY kits are throttle activated. Some of the newer systems have PAS options. Ebike kits are not unilaterally prohibited or assigned motor vehicle status, but again, legal classification and road use falls under state law.
Speed Pedelec ebikes – A new classification of bikes called ‘Speed Pedelecs’ have emerged which technically meet the bicycle definition for a 20 mph ebike. These ebikes are designed to max out at 28 mph. Pedelecs are pedal activated vs throttle activated. The weasel words within the definition says, “20mph on motor alone”. Thus, a person who adds their leg power to the motor assist and happens to cruise at 28mph is NOT doing it by motor alone, and therefore the bike is considered to be compliant with the Federal Law. If the rider stops pedaling, the speed pedelec cannot maintain speed. Speed Pedelecs are becoming more popular in Europe and America, which means more models are being offered.
In summary, federal law trumps all States’ laws. That is true with bicycle law, too. States cannot constitutionally pass legislation that reduces or eliminates Federal laws, they can only pass legislation that enacts additional (tighter) restrictions on its people. States can’t define an ebike a bicycle if greater than 750W/20mph, nor can they define an ebike a motor vehicle if less than the Federal Government’s limit of 750 Watts and a top electric-powered speed of 20 MPH.3 This is the Federal definition of a low speed electric bike, which equates it to a bicycle.
The Urge to Fly Under the Radar
A new electric cyclist will likely experience two conflicts of thought: 1). Will the general public accept my use of this power assist technology, or Will they ridicule and reject me as being lazy? 2). Will I stand out to law enforcement by the look of my bike or riding a bit faster than other cyclist on hills and roads? Grappling with these two thoughts will tempt most folks to try and remain unnoticed and ride more responsibly. After I became an advocate of e-transportation on two wheels, enjoying the benefits of power assist commuting, I eventually was a bit put off by this federal law, especially the 20mph limitation. Is 20 mph really practical and justified? Is it not true that many active young people on typical road bicycles are able to actively ride in the 20-25mph range? I discovered that ebikes, with larger tires and disk brakes, can comfortably and safety cruise in that range of speed. The standard 2001 Federal law of 20mph, eventually became a practical limitation for an ebike commuter of over 20 miles a day, and caused me to get a bike beyond the federal limits, making me more alert and sensitive when riding in the presence of the police.
I have been able to find ebikes of all speeds out in the wild and after years of riding and a reflective posture for the law, I see that lawmakers were thinking less about me and my practical wants as the user, and more about the mass motor vehicle driving public, their perceptions and expectations of ‘typical bicycle speeds’ on the roads and paths. So the laws were made to bicycle NORMS, not the potential performance limits for users.
In my research about ebikes and the law, I cannot begin to justify how often articles about the laws evolved into the various ways and techniques to sneak around public notice and be stealth with the your ebike. The goal is to ride fast and fun, stay away from public awareness, and ‘Fly under the Radar’. I have been there and I get the drift. Sales and production are up. Electric bike kits, DIY enthusiast, long distance commuters, and a general drive for value is raising the desire for more options for consumers, wanting speed for fun and function, while developing amnesia for the law. People want to ride their new ebikes, and have the same access to safe pathways as they did the week before on their 100% human bike. Rather than deal with the inevitable conflicts over access, behavior and perception within the general public, the typical user will try to blend in with the normal cycling community.
But the good times of the stealthy ebike existence will not endure forever. The ebike market is growing steadily and more so, technology is driving performance up and costs down. The market for a green, lifestyle friendly, transportation technology, with GPS, theft ID, cell service and probably skim lattes is alive and driving an emerging market. It is a matter of time before we all must face and respond to the legal demands of the state and local laws. Not to be over obligatory about being legal and duty oriented, but I do call on my fellow ebikers to ride legal, whether ebike, moped or other. Go ahead and build the 1200W ebike of your dreams, but get it insured and licensed if you must. Such compliance will set the precedence for public acceptance of ebikes in general, and build a track record for expansion and mainstreaming of moped-speed ebikes for commuter value driven needs of the future.
In my opinion, it is best for enthusiast to engage the bike culture, lawmakers, environmental advocates, and build some common ground to make transition via the laws an easier path.
If you are a person who enjoys riding a bike casually at a typical bike path speed (10-15mph), and you like the idea of an ebike push up a hill, against the wind or to relieving a sore knee, then your market for a fully legally defined ebike is very broad and your practical use only has a few limitations. Most ebikes will meet your needs and expectation. I would estimate that 85% of the electric bikes on the market are 100% compliant meeting the federal definition. I encourage you to take the plunge and get a good quality ebike and ridemore with assist. Do so with the confidence that electric bikes are here to stay. Coexisting with pedestrians and other cyclist will become a normal part of cycling life.
Is Classification the Future?
Efforts to update the current laws are already underfoot. In the fall of 2015, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that modernizes e-bike regulations and ensured that they are treated like traditional bicycles instead of mopeds.6 California established three classes of ebikes:
Class 1: 750W/20mph max, pedal activated only.
Class 2: 750W/20mph max, throttle activated only.
Class 3: 750W/28mph max, pedal activated only. (Speed Pedelec)
Under the Guide Section of EBR, Court has written a full article, dedicated to the new classification approach, which was initiated by the BPSA (Bicycle Product Suppliers Association), supported by PeopleForBikes, and then Calbikes. The initiative was meant to be pro-active with ebike legislation, to establish self-imposed, measurable, distinct classes of electric bikes before states start hearing about anecdotal problems and potentially overreact to the technology with wide sweeping limitations.
The hard work to enact this new legislation has been done. Time will tell what amendments will be added. However, a framework for legal definition has been set and ebike producers can promote and sell with confidence.
Highlights and comments on the classification:
The classifications cover both production and labeling of the ebikes by the manufacturer, and the implemented use and access for the riders. The result is that all ebikes owners will officially no longer have the universal access to all fairways that traditional cyclist now enjoy.
Class 1 makes great inroads to establish set boundaries for off road/natural surface trail access for eMountain bikes. There is fierce resistance from some mountain biking purists to allow ebikes on trails. BPSA and IMBA have done good work to justify the impact of class 1 ebikes on natural surface trails, and eliminate the wear-n-tear argument, though IMBA members are not 100% on board.
Class 2 re-established the 2001 federal definition for an ebike.
Class 3 expands the interpretation of the Federal Law and pushes opportunity for growth and practical use.
DIY enthusiasts, with tens of thousands of converted bikes using throttle-only, 20+ mph kits, are now officially labeled Moped class. While these bikes handle and pedal-ride just as safely as the class 3 speed pedelecs in many cases, our DIY counterparts will be officially kicked out and left on their own for advocacy and legal acceptance in California. This is a big deal, without a class sticker, any DIY electric bike conversion kit is considered a Moped and not a bicycle.
I would like to see a distinct class 4 for e-mopeds, and remove them from ICE mopeds.
The corresponding Bikeway Access classification within the chart seems confusing and incomplete. Where is the unique application for class 1 and natural surface riding?
Maybe the most confusing legal issue facing e-bike riders today is the difference between a bike lane and bike path. A bike lane is a marked section of roadway shared with motor vehicles. Bike paths pretty much universally prohibit the use of motorized vehicles. Still, you will need to research your area. As an example: “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.”8
It should be obvious that any transition to new laws and classifications will be imperfect and have growing pains. As an ebike rider and consumer, just be aware that the freedom to come and go will largely be dictated by the class of bike you purchase or decide to build and possibly how you conduct yourself amongst pedestrians and other cyclist.
If a car is at fault in an accident with a bicycle or ebike, their motor vehicle insurance will likely cover your cost for repair and hopefully medical expenses. But what happens if you are at fault, riding an ebike illegally because you did not register it as a Moped? At best, you could be prosecuted under the law. At worst, you could be financially liable for neglect or reckless endangerment via a law suit.
So here is where I must give the perfunctory DISCLAIMER, and say nothing I or EBR say or advocate in this article should be used for legal advice, the individual should seek their own legal counsel.
I would advocate you ride legal within the laws of your state. I would also look into some kind of liability rider or umbrella policy with your home owner’s policy, which covers your personal liability and theft. Get your bike registered; wear your helmet, eye protection, whatever is required by state law so that if an accident occurs and you are at fault, there is no legal recourse. Even if you own a 750W/20mph ebike that meets the definition of a bicycle, any at-fault cyclist may still be denied coverage by stingy insurance companies who want to support their clients. Your health insurance will usually cover your medical bills, but the costs of an expensive ebike may be lost.
For many ebike owners, doing their ebike thing usually becomes more than a hobby and good exercise on the weekend with the riding club. It becomes a lifestyle, a utility machine, a darn fun piece of technology on two wheels. As the industry grows and becomes more popular, these unique bikes will be a daily part of many lives and mold into the framework of legal society.