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Road Rights- Power to the People

What you need to know about e-bikes and the law

By Bob Mionske

For cyclists who ride for fitness, electric-assist ­bicycles, or e-bikes, may seem to miss the point. But when it comes to pedaling for transportation, more people might decide to get around on two wheels if they had access to one of these motorized machines. However, where and even ­whether it’s legal to ride an e-bike depends on a complex mix of federal, state, and local laws. Here are some of the rules involved.

Under federal law, if an e-bike has pedals that the rider can use to power the bicycle without the assistance of the electric motor, a motor of less than 1 horsepower, and a top motor speed below 20 mph, it is defined as a “low-speed electric bicycle,” and legally is considered a bicycle. But if the e-bike does not meet those requirements, it is classified as a motor ­vehicle. The federal law does not apply to e-bikes that are owner-assembled from a kit or from scratch—but some states do regulate such models. How­ever, even when e-bikes are legally considered bicycles, federal law specifies that they may not be used on bike paths that have been built with the ­assistance of federal funding, unless a state or local law specifically­ permits ­e-bikes on bicycle or pedestrian paths.

E-bikes are also regulated by each state. When checking the specifics of your local laws, consider these questions.

Is it legal to ride an e-bike?
Not everywhere. For example, it’s not permitted in New York state, regardless of maximum speed or motor size (although a bill on hold in the state legislature aims to ­legalize e-bikes). New York City specifically prohibits e-bikes, and police are increasingly strict about enforcing the rule.

How fast can the e-bike go?
Some states, including Connecticut, Maryland, and Montana, allow higher maximum speeds than the federal limit.

How powerful can the motor be?
Several states allow horsepower greater than the federal maximum. Arizona does not regulate motor power at all.

Is a helmet required?
In Georgia, New Hampshire, and Oregon, riders under 16 must wear one. In California, Connecticut, and Iowa, helmets are required for all e-bike riders.

Is there a minimum age?
It varies. For example, it’s 14 in Alabama and New Hampshire, 16 in California, Illinois, and Iowa, and 18 in the District of Columbia.

Do you need a license?
It’s required in Alabama, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Tennessee.

Research and assistance by Rick Bernardi, J.D.

This article, Power to the People, was origially published on Bicycling on OCtober 15, 2012.

Now read the fine print:
Bicycle and the Law, Bob MionskeBob Mionske is a former competitive cyclist who represented the U.S. at the 1988 Olympic games (where he finished fourth in the road race), the 1992 Olympics, as well as winning the 1990 national championship road race.
After retiring from racing in 1993, he coached the Saturn Professional Cycling team for one year before heading off to law school. Mionske's practice is now split between personal-injury work, representing professional athletes as an agent and other legal issues facing endurance athletes (traffic violations, contract, criminal charges, intellectual property, etc).
Mionske is also the author of Bicycling and the Law, designed to be the primary resource for cyclists to consult when faced with a legal question. It provides readers with the knowledge to avoid many legal problems in the first place, and informs them of their rights, their responsibilities, and what steps they can take if they do encounter a legal problem.
 
If you have a cycling-related legal question, please send it to mionskelaw@hotmail.com Bob will answer as many of these questions privately as he can. He will also select a few questions each week to answer in this column. General bicycle-accident advice can be found at www.bicyclelaw.com.
Important notice:
The information provided in the "Road Rights" column is not legal advice. The information provided on this public web site is provided solely for the general interest of the visitors to this web site. The information contained in the column applies to general principles of American jurisprudence and may not reflect current legal developments or statutory changes in the various jurisdictions and therefore should not be relied upon or interpreted as legal advice. Understand that reading the information contained in this column does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Bob Mionske. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained in the web site without first seeking the advice of legal counsel.

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