eBikes bring the idea of clean commuting, zero emissions, and getting from point A to point B without having to waste your time waiting for public transportation.
That’s all well and good, but if you don’t know what the rules of the road are, you’re going to land yourself in big trouble before long.
You may be surprised to find that electric bike laws actually come with some pretty damning consequences when you don’t adhere to them; let’s go over them now.
Electric bikes aren’t a brand new idea. In fact, as far back as 2002, a federal law was created to categorize electric bikes and develop a specific speed, weight, and wattage limit to ensure they weren’t dangerous to the public.
There had to be a hard line drawn to differentiate between an electric bike, and a moped or electric motorcycle.
Electric Bikes Cannot Exceed 20 MPH (Kind of): This law isn’t specific anymore. It used to be that your bike can’t go over 20 MPH or it couldn’t be manufactured, but that law has changed. Your ebike can go over 20 MPH if the state laws allow for it.
Cannot Exceed 750 Watts: Because watts can essentially transfer over to horsepower, there has to be a limit somewhere, just like with other vehicles like ATVs and tractors (which are often designed to stay under a certain range so that they don’t have to be registered). 750 watts is the current cap on power for an electric bike, and there’s no indication that this will increase at any point in the future.
Power Assist and Pedal Assist: Power assist ebikes are essentially throttle-only bikes where you can’t input manual pedaling. Pedal assist bikes are as you would expect: assisted by pedaling, but with an electric motor. These adhere to that 20 MPH rule mentioned before. Either way, if it has an electric motor, it counts as an ebike.
One thing to keep in mind is that federal laws have to do with manufacturing and safety information, but are overruled by state and local laws. If you’re in a state with more relaxed laws, those will override federal laws, but you have to be aware of other states as well.
If you’re planning a cross-state trip with a pedal-assisted ebike, you’re going to have to brush up on the laws of whatever states you’ll be crossing into. Let’s talk about state laws and how they impact your electric bike usage.
State laws are where things get a little slippery.
Because state laws override federal jurisdiction in these instances, you absolutely have to inspect your state’s local laws regarding electric bike use before you ever set foot (or pedal) onto a trail.
We have three major classifications that can vary from state to state, but as of right now, they are:
Does define eBikes
Does define eBikes with a three-tier class system
Why is this important? Because if a state doesn’t define an electric bike, you’re basically a free bird with free reign. However, the only current states that don’t define ebikes are AK, ND, NM, MO, AL, and MA in the continental US (territories are separate).
With three-tier systems, the laws change depending on what classification your ebike falls into. This will dictate operator ages, helmet restrictions, and whether or not you need a license depending on the bike’s tier.
Class 1: Electric motors that only apply assistance to the rider when the bike is in manual operation. This assists the rider, but will not carry them on its own (this class varies state to state).
Class 2: Throttle-induced assistance that can carry the operator without manual operation. These motor cannot exceed 20 MPH on their own (this varies state to state).
Class 3: Throttle induced full operation taking the operator to speeds over 20 MPH, typically around 25-30 MPH and beyond (this varies state to state).
Let’s take a look at some of the different laws you should look out for.
This is where the law gets a little confusing, because as of 2014, the law states that the 20 MPH limit on manufacturing ebikes with pedal-assist systems is strictly a manufacturing law, not an operation law.
Under 20 MPH, your vehicle is registered as a moped if it is completely unassisted (that is to say, a 100% electric motor achieving those speeds). Over 20 MPH, and you may have to get a license to operate it; this applies to pedal-assisted electric bikes specifically.
Because of old information regarding electric bike manufacturing and the 20 MPH speed limit, a lot of ebike enthusiasts and first-timers are shocked to learn that you can even purchase an electric bike that can travel over that limit.
It’s just a matter of operating manual speed combined with motor speed, and whether or not you’ll need to get a license for it (more on that in a moment).
You’re not going to find electric bikes over 750 watts, and that’s because the federal laws dictate manufacturing laws and regulations.
If bikes can’t be built with more than a 750 watt motor, state laws don’t really have a say here. That being said, some states are known to put a limit on what identifies as an electric bike for recreational use, and what defines an electric bike for commuting and requires a license.
Under a certain wattage, and you can use it for operators under the age of 18 on private property without any issues. It’s just seen as a big, slightly fast toy. You just have to be careful about hitting that threshold.
It’s a good idea to use a helmet, but is it a law? In some states, yes it is. When your ebike becomes a street legal vehicle and is used on the road and for commuting, you can be fined or have your license revoked for not operating with a helmet.
Is this a likely scenario that you’ll run into? No, it certainly isn’t, but that doesn’t mean you should treat it any differently. It’s always better to be safe than sorry for your own personal safety, and for the sake of adhering to the law.
In many states, the minimum age to use an electric bike is 16, while some states will be 17 or 18. Pay attention to the wording for minimum age requirements, because they often talk about ebikes that exceed 20 MPH and must be street legal.
Electric bikes that stay under the federal manufacturing guidelines may be able to be used by riders under the age of 16 on private property, or even publicly depending on state laws.
Yes, you may be required to have a license to operate an ebike. It sounds crazy, but it’s true. While this is certainly something bordering on excessive, your hands are tied. If your state requires it, then they require it. This will depend on how your state classifies electric bikes from class one through three.
In some instances, driver’s licenses can be revoked if you fail to meet the laws even after one offense. Without sounding like a broken record, every single state will have specific laws, so watch yourself and be sure to follow their laws without missing a beat.
Other Specific State Laws
States like California will actually have different MPH ratings for different eMTB trails. Now, electric mountain biking is something that we don’t see a lot of, but in California it’s definitely becoming part of the norm for hikers and day trippers.
Some trails may only be 14 MPH, while others will allow up to 17 MPH. This is for the safety of other riders and pedestrian hikers as well.
In certain states such as Florida, there are federal grounds where you’re under a different jurisdiction when it comes to speed and safety laws. These are very gray areas that you have to independently research when you plan out your trail.
Legal With a Few Hoops to Jump Through
Every state is different, and federal laws dictate production and safety codes for electric bikes. Find your state laws and electric bike use, and put the pedal to the metal (within your legal speed limit, of course).
Some states require insurance and registration, others do not but will require you to obey the rules of the road. It all depends, but the concessions are small and easy to adhere to, so there should be no major hurdle to jump through if you want to get out on your ebike today.
Noel Joseph has been in the world of motor vehicles for a long period. Currently, he is enthusiastic about Electric & Hybrid Motors and is an independent researcher. He advocates for a clean and sustainable future and envisions utilizing his years of experience in mechanical engineering. His new venture here at CompactPower.com is to organize and simplify knowledge on Electric vehicles. He wants to build a space where people can talk about EVs and associated technologies with freedom.