Electric bikes have the potential to get many new riders onto two wheels, as well as giving existing cyclists a welcome boost when carrying cargo or recovering from ill health or injury. However, the law regarding factors such as engine size, user age and insurance can be confusing. Here Richard Peace, joint author of Electric Bicycles, explains the current legal situation.
Just like a normal bike
In the UK and Europe, as long as electric bikes remain subject to certain criteria, they are treated just the same as non-electric bikes – there's no red tape in the form of a license, road tax or insurance, and neither is helmet wearing a legal requirement.
What are these basic rules? They were laid down by the Electrically Assisted Pedal Cycles Regulations of 1983 as amended by a 2004 European Directive, the net result being:
- 25kmh (15.6mph) is the maximum assisted speed allowed.
- The continuously rated power output of the motor must not exceed 250 watts.
- The vehicle must not weigh more than 40kg/88lb (60kg/132lb in the case of a tandem). While some early electric bikes with large lead acid batteries may have pushed the 40kg limit, bikes of this weight are virtually unheard of these days (unless you're looking at specialist models such as large cargo bikes or cycle rickshaws).
Other laws apply too: the rider must be over 14 and the bike should show a plate detailing the manufacturer’s name, nominal battery voltage and motor power rating.
What happens if the criteria are exceeded?
The internet is full of electric bikes (and especially electric bike kits) that exceed these limits. To get around this they're classified for ‘off-road’ use. This effectively makes them mopeds in the eyes of the law, meaning they shouldn’t be used on the public highway without going through the usual procedure of obtaining a licence, tax and insurance.
In some European countries – most notably Germany and Switzerland – there's a separate class of superfast electric bikes (power allowed up to about 30mph) that face less stringent requirements than mopeds and motorbikes. A proposal to extend this class across the European Union was recently rejected by the EU government.
Must you pedal, or can you use throttle only?
European law says the motor alone can't be used to power the bicycle (ie. pedal power too is needed) and that the motor must cut out completely above the legal speed limit (though of course you are still allowed to pedal).
In effect this means that ‘throttle-only’ power is not legal for use on public roads. Some bikes may feature an ‘off-road’ switch that allows you to toggle between throttle-control only and a ‘legal’ mode that requires pedal input. The legality of these bikes is, at best, questionable.
As this isn't totally retrospective, electric bikes from 1999 and before may have ‘open throttles’. The law is particularly complicated for the 2000-2003 period, but for bikes from 2004 and later open throttles definitely mean the electric bike will be classed as a moped within the EU. As European law doesn’t apply to kits these can have throttle-only control.
What’s the position in the US and Canada?
Despite a federal law laying down a speed cap of 20mph and a motor rating of 750W, US law on electric bikes is usually determined at state or city level (the national regulations define consumer law requirements, not the legalities for riding on a public road).
Many state laws do fall in line with the 20mph/750W caps but many do not. If you're concerned about the legality of your e-bike, the best course of action is to call up the transportation department of the relevant state. They'll also be able to tell you of any relevant law on helmet wearing and insurance.
In Canada, national law says 20mph and 500W caps apply, but again states can pass supplementary laws – and nine have done so, making it clear that qualifying electric bikes are treated as regular bikes and not motor vehicles. The states are Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan and the Yukon.
How strictly are these laws enforced?
Not very! – and that applies to the UK, Europe and the US. However, if you're caught out – and especially if involved in an accident – the consequences of breaching the law could be serious.
Are there laws on electrical safety and battery disposal?
Yes. For electric bikes within the EU you should be able to see the letters CE and (possibly) the numbering EN15194 on new bikes. This means they've been tested for safety in line with European design and construction and electromagnetic compatibility rules.
As batteries used on electric bikes are classed as ‘industrial batteries’, battery producers must now cover the cost of collection, treatment and recycling of waste batteries. This means you should take defunct batteries back to the retailer, or if this isn’t practical, to the nearest battery disposal point (most councils have these at larger rubbish tips).