At the federal level, a 2002 law enacted by Congress, HB 727, amended the Consumer Product Safety Commission definition of e-bikes. The law defined 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.” The federal law permits e-bikes to be powered by the motor alone (a “throttle-assist” e-bike), or by a combination of motor and human power (a “pedal-assist” e-bike).
Significantly, federal law only specifies the maximum speed that the e-bike can travel under motor power alone. It does not provide a maximum speed when the bicycle is being propelled by a combination of human and motor power, which is how e-bikes are predominantly ridden. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has clarified that the federal law does allow e-bikes to travel faster than 20 mph when using a combination of human and motor power.
This law distinguishes, at the federal level, e-bikes that can travel 20 mph or less under motor power alone from motorcycles, mopeds and motor vehicles. Devices that meet the federal definition of an electric bicycle are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and must meet bicycle safety standards. However, as a 2014 e-bike law primer notes, this federal law only applies to the e-bike’s product standards and safety.
State traffic laws and vehicle codes remain the sole domain of states and state legislatures. In other words, the manufacturing and first sale of an e-bike is regulated by the federal government, but its operation on streets and bikeways lies within a state’s control. Thus, many states still have their own laws that categorize e-bikes with mopeds and other motorized vehicles, require licensure and registration, or do not enable them to be used on facilities such as bike lanes or multi-purpose trails.
There has been a steady stream of legislative action at statehouses regarding e-bikes since 2015. State legislation has focused on three dynamics:
The District of Columbia (D.C.) and 44 states in some manner define an electric bicycle:
Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. All these states have different laws regarding the operation of electric bicycles. In the remaining states, electric bicycles lack a specific definition and may be included within another vehicle class such as “moped” or “motorized bicycle.”
In Mississippi, there is no clear designation for an electric bicycle, but an attorney general opinion indicates that an electric bicycle would be considered a bicycle. While Kentucky also lacks a definition for e-bikes, the Department of Transportation passed an administrative regulation in 2015 that brought e-bikes within the scope of the state’s bicycle regulations.
Twenty-six states (Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming) have created a three-tiered e-bike classification system intended to differentiate between models with varying speed capabilities. These states have almost identical defining language for e-bikes, as well as similar safety and operation requirements.
New Jersey and West Virginia both established a two-tiered classification system. In New Jersey’s case, the definition only includes the first two tiers of classification. The legislature then modified its “motorized bicycles” definition by stating that such device is one that operates in excess of 20 MPH with a maximum motor-powered speed of 28 MPH. This would generally meet the definition of a “class three” e-bike. In West Virginia, the law provides for “class one” and “class three” e-bikes, but not the “class two” classification e-bike that can be propelled solely by a motor up to 20 MPH.
|Class 1 electric bicycle
|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.
|Class 2 electric bicycle
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.
|Class 3 electric bicycle
|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 and is equipped with a speedometer.
Any device outside of these definitions is not considered a low-speed electric bicycle that would be regulated as a bicycle.
At least 25 states and D.C. have some sort of helmet requirement for e-bike riders and passengers. These often apply to riders under a certain age.
However, 25 states do not have helmet requirements for any class of e-bike. Of which, at least eight, including Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Oklahoma, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming, have enacted specific e-bike laws without such requirements.
Twenty-two states and D.C. have helmet laws that apply to all bicyclists, including e-bike riders, under a certain age, ranging from under 12 to 18 years of age.
States with a three-tiered classification system typically exempt an e-bike from registration, licensure and insurance requirements to differentiate between e-bikes and other motorized vehicles such as mopeds and scooters.
All 26 states with a three-tiered classification system require an e-bike to be affixed with a label that states the classification number, top-assisted speed and motor wattage.
Overall, at least six states—Alabama, Alaska, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Mexico and North Dakota—require a license to operate an e-bike, typically because they still fall under the designation of another motorized vehicle classification with licensure and registration requirements and have not had a distinct e-bike law created. Utah and Vermont are examples of states that have recently eliminated e-bike licensure and registration requirements. Some states, including Alabama and Alaska, that define e-bikes in some manner still nonetheless require an operator’s license to ride an e-bike.
Of the 43 states and D.C. that define e-bikes, some state laws, such as in Arizona, Minnesota, Utah and Washington, specifically allow e-bike operation on facilities such as bicycle paths or greenways, with the caveat that many carve out exceptions for localities to enact stricter operation regulations on such bike and pedestrian facilities. In Delaware, Iowa and Nebraska, electric bicycles are defined within the existing definition of a bicycle, therefore there is not a distinction when it comes to operation on trails. Vermont specifies that motor-assisted bicycles are governed as bicycles and have the same rights and duties applicable to bicyclists. Hawaii’s law does not include restrictions on where e-bikes may operate.
Assuming the continued robust growth of the e-bike industry, state legislatures will likely continue to grapple with defining e-bikes, clarifying operation, safety and equipment standards and further distinguishing from motorized vehicles such as mopeds and scooters.
For further information on e-bike laws, research, news and industry updates visit People for Bikes.