To the uninitiated, ebike laws can be incredibly confusing. Even if someone wanted to be a decent law-abiding citizen, understanding the slew of ebike laws which vary from state to state, between towns and even individual parks can be quite a challenge. This article will help people understand more deeply the federal, state and local laws governing ebike use so they can more intelligently make purchasing and usage decisions. If you’re going to break the law, I find it’s always better to know you are breaking the law.
Normally Federal laws supersede state laws that supersede local laws, but in reality, that is often not what happens. In practice what ends up happening is that laws are enforced most diligently by the people who are hired to enforce the laws. If you live in Colorado where recreational marijuana is legal, the local sheriff is not going to bust you for breaking federal laws, but the DEA might (as they are a federal agency). If something implicitly states that what you are doing with your ebike is illegal on any level, then it’s probably illegal, if not then you are probably good.
Federal classification of ebike law HR 727
The federal Consumer Product Safety Act defines a “low-speed electric bicycle” as a two or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals, a top speed when powered solely by the motor under 20 mph (32 km/h) and an electric motor that produces less than 750 W (1.01 hp). This law is just a classification for what an ebike is and does not have any real power. Although the law states that ebikes can be used on any path or roadway that pedal-powered bicycles are allowed on, this law doesn’t hold any real weight, it is up to the individual states to create and enforce their own ebike laws. To be clear HR 727 is a law that defines what an ebike IS not where an ebike can be ridden. If an ebike has more power or higher speed than what is listed in HR 727 then it is considered a ‘motor vehicle’ and it is regulated by the federal DOT and NHTSA.
Where it gets really confusing
So here is where the laws get really confusing, several states have followed California’s lead and separated ebikes into 3 different classes and allowed for a ‘Class 3’ Pedalec (ebikes you have to pedal) that can go up to 28mph (on specific bike trails and with a helmet). So now we enter into a gray legal area. If your Pedalec ebike goes 28mph without using a throttle federal law states that ebike should be classified as a ‘motor vehicle’ and regulated by the federal DOT and NHTSA. The state law is classifying that ebike as a ‘bicycle’ and therefore needs no registration, insurance, and federal oversight. So which law should you obey? The reality is that the Federal law HR 727 is a law that only covers the classification and the California state law covers the usage so you should follow the usage laws, not the classification law.
Raising the ‘speed limit’ on ebikes
The best thing that these ebike classification laws did was effectively ‘raise the speed limit’ for pretty much all ebikes to 28mph. Almost every ‘Class 3’ ebike on the market has a throttle you can peg and now there are a host of different ebike manufacturers selling ebikes with a higher 28mph speed limit and Pedal Assist. Many ebike kits that allow you to build your own ebike out of any bicycle do not have any speed limiting whatsoever (it’s the only kind I build).
So on top of the already confusing Federal classification laws and state usage laws, we also have local laws. These laws can vary by city or county and many different parks also have specific ebike usage laws. When I use my ebikes I pretty much ignore all the laws and do whatever I want, but if I wanted to be a law-abiding citizen I would google local ebike laws for every new city or park I wanted to ride in. As of Aug 29, 2019 ebikes are now allowed in National Parks. I have been to most of the National Parks in the US with my son, and they are the hidden jewels of America. Having ebikes allowed in these parks is one of the smartest moves that the National Park Service has ever done.
If local laws prohibit ebikes then it doesn’t matter what the Federal or State laws say, which means that ebikes are not allowed. Popular places like Moab have just outright banned ebikes, which is far easier than trying to regulate ebike usage on those trails. For many hardcore mountain bikers Moab is considered the holy land, and after riding there several times, I have to agree. Would I ever ride an ebike in Moab? Probably not, as I feel in some ways it would be desecrating a ‘holy site’. NY DEC has banned ebikes in all parks in NY state with a $250 fine and up to 15 days in jail. Do I give a crap? Not in the slightest. Come and catch me, if you can. Let me be clear, I don’t view all DEC land in NY state as sacred, and the way that the DEC is constantly logging every chance they get, I don’t think they really do either. Riding a 55lb ebike on a bicycle trail is going to cause a lot less damage than their ridiculous constant logging operations (they just never end).
Is that 750W power rating for nominal or peak
Here’s another point of contention, drive units like the BBS02 are classified as 750W although with a 52v pack they can peak out at close to 1300W. Running these motors for any length of time at those power levels will cause issues, but are they strictly legal? I think when it comes to power rating the rating that counts is the one that is stamped on the motor. I have a couple BBSHD’s (1000W nominal) that are stamped with 750W even though they have Ludicrous controllers that peak out at 2500W. Are these ebikes legal anywhere? Absolutely not. Do I care? Absolutely not.
I’ve ridden past cops sitting at a standstill in traffic at over 35 mph in bike lanes. They don’t even bat an eye. At this time ebikes are not legal in NY, and Governor Cuomo in his infinite wisdom keeps vetoing laws that would make them legal. Fines for riding ebikes in NYC can top $3000 so my feeling is that it is just way too sweet of a moneymaker for them to allow them to ever be legal. It’s insane to me that they are talking about actually banning traffic in Manhatten because of congestion issues, but no one is seriously talking about making ebikes legal in NYC.
Selective enforcement is just what happens
Just for fun, I’ve repeatedly seen what I could get away with electric-powered vehicles and I’ve been amazed at what cops have completely ignored. I rode a Sur Ron all over LA 2 years ago when I was first testing it and never got harassed. The Sur Ron easily goes 45mph and looks like a dirt bike, but it is also completely silent. I also screamed around the streets of LA at over 30mph in a tiny 1500W drift trike and rode it on the Strand several times with my friend Curt and was never harassed. I never thought I would get away with that, as sitting at a red light next to cars that could easily run you over was a little nerve-wracking (get the LED whip light, it helps). I’ve also ridden racing scooters at 50mph though residential neighborhoods and in the city and again no issues. My feeling is that enforcement of ebike laws is lax because ebikes are silent and the police often don’t know the laws themselves. It absolutely blows me away the kind of hooliganism I can get away with on an ebike that I would NEVER be able to get away with if I was riding a 2 stroke gas-powered motor.
So what should I do?
If you want to be totally legal, get a 750W ebike that is speed limited to 20mph. If you don’t care about laws or what to see what you can get away with, then just buy whatever you want. There is no shortage of high power ebikes on the market and the reality is that if your ebike looks like a bike and not a scooter or a dirt bike then you will likely never get harassed or ticketed. Most cops don’t sit on bike trails with radar guns handing out tickets to anyone who goes over 20 mph so you have to recognize that right now the enforcement just isn’t there. Use a helmet and a little bit of common sense and courtesy will get you a long way. I slow down when I pass people and verbally let them know I am overtaking them. I never argue with cops, as they are allowed to write you a ticket for whatever they want. Your best bet is to try to fight it in the courts.
Just not being a dick goes a really long way. I know, just ask my wife. OK maybe not today, but on a good day, just ask my wife.
Thanks to Michael Skinner for the article idea. Michael and I both agree that laws are always optional if they are approved by legislators that we didn’t actually vote for (it’s in the Constitution).