Electric bicycles or e-bikes have witnessed an uptick in sales in the US. However, there are many misconceptions about them, especially their stand under the law at the federal and state levels. This article looks at the regulations and laws on ebikes in the US.
As defined by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, CPSC, E-Bikes are low-speed bicycles that work with pedal or muscle assist. This means the rider is still expected to pedal, despite the presence of an electric motor. However, some e-bike models have a throttle that lets the electric motor take over the pedaling completely.
Since e-bikes are traditional bicycles with extra features like the electric motor and battery, they usually cost more. On average, e-bikes cost between $2,000 and $3,000, compared to about $1,000 for regular bicycles.
Most of the legislative issues surrounding e-bikes stem from how to classify them and regulate their use on roads. As such, their status differs from one state to another.
Federal laws have attempted to limit the definition of an e-bike. They limit the power rating of the electric motor to 750 watts or 1 hp and the maximum speed when carrying a rider weighing 170 pounds to 20 mph. However, an e-bike could require human power or not.
It is to be noted that the definition above only deals with the maximum speed when the e-bike is propelled by the electric motor alone but does not address when the propulsion comes from both the motor and the rider’s muscle power.
To avoid ambiguity, the CPSC has clarified that federal laws allow e-bikes to exceed 20 mph when the rider uses pedal assist.
Another legal observation is that while federal laws regulate the manufacture and sales of e-bikes, their operation falls under state jurisdiction.
This is where the status of the e-bike becomes uncertain as they get classified differently from state to state. For instance, some states classify e-bikes as moped and require licenses and registration. Other states bar them from being used on bike lanes.
Some states lump e-bikes with mopeds or ‘motorized bicycles’ while others employ a distinction. In Mississippi, for example, the law does not recognize e-bikes but groups them with bicycles.
E-bikes fall under three classifications, based on their maximum speed, in 26 states, including New York and Washington. New Jersey and Virginia also use speed classification, but only two tiers.
A helmet is required to use an e-bike in 25 states, with varying levels of strictness based on the ages of the rider and passenger.
States that categorize e-bikes as motorized vehicles typically require an e-bike license. However, states with a three-tier e-bike classification require a label on the bicycle that states the classification number, top speed with motor assist, and motor wattage.