'Fast' E-Bikes: Pushing Legal Limits
By Ed Benjamin
They're fast, fun, and meant to be used offroad, but a new class of electric-bikes are pushing the bounds of legality.
“Fast ebikes” or “speed pedelecs” or “illegal ebikes” are a topic of conversation as the market for electric bikes in the USA grows. The key message here is that electric bikes can comply with the law, even the ones that are faster than the federal definition. And it is not hard to comply.
Some of these bikes can achieve speeds of 60 plus MPH. Many can exceed 40 MPH. Operating such, which appear to be outside the law, can cause problems for the entire industry, as well as the individual operators.
The Light Electric Vehicle Association represents the interests of companies that build and sell light electric vehicles. (www.LEVAssociation.com) This is primarily electric bikes and scooters at this time. The LEVA promotes the use of LEVs, and currently has about 250 companies / members in about 29 countries.
We at the LEVA feel that complying with the laws of the land is a simple issue. The laws are what they are, and citizens are required conform. If the laws do not suit - there are usually ways to discuss that with the political leadership that created the laws, and in many cases the laws can be changed to be more appropriate.
Most Americans do follow the laws - one reason that America is a good place to live. This pattern of voluntary compliance with the law is a strong and positive attribute of American culture.
But compliance is not optional. There are consequences and an enforcement mechanism.
In the USA, bicycles are very privileged vehicles. Bicycles do not need operator’s licenses, insurance, license plates, or registration of any kind. They are entitled to use the roadway, and the bike path. And the speed limits and rules of the road are the same as for motor traffic.
The federal definition of an electric bike makes a compliant electric assisted bike a "bicycle". This is a very advantageous classification, and one to be cherished.
In the USA, a bicycle that has a functional, human powered set of pedals and transmission and a motor of less than 750 watts that can propel the bicycle at a speed of less than 20 MPH is clearly defined by HR 727 and the resulting CPSC regulations as a “bicycle”. The complete description is a low speed electrically assisted bicycle. Note the words “low speed”. (Some states have modified this, but the federal definition is the most common.) It may be controlled by throttle, or by pedaling.
The state and federal laws can be found at www.LEVAssociation.com.
Compare this to other nations that are often limited to 250 watts, and speeds as low as 12 mph. And many where the rider MUST pedal for the motor run. While these are proven to be useful vehicles, the USA definition allows for much more creativity, more functionality, and for larger riders.
When an ebike or a pedelec (a pedelec is a bike that the rider must pedal for the motor to run – the norm in the EU and Japan.) exceeds the government definition it becomes something other than an ebike.
Most “high speed” e bikes are actually mopeds or light motorcycles. There is a homologation process (making it conform to the laws of the land - gaining official approval) for mopeds and motorcycles - and it is not onerous.
Builders and distributors of such electric mopeds and light motorcycles can learn from NHTSA, and their state DOT, about the process of homologating their vehicles. And for consumers of such electric mopeds and light motorcycles can acquire appropriate licenses, insurance, and safety equipment and enjoy riding them, legally.
It is important for the reader to understand that the higher speed “Speed Pedelecs” of Europe have a set of relevant regulations and homologation process that was created, (in the EU, not long ago – and in response to demand from industry and consumers), that when complied with – makes them legal vehicles in the EU. The companies selling such in the USA have, so far as we know, complied with the laws of the EU. But just because a speed pedelec is legal in Europe does not make it legal in the USA. Some of the bikes being imported to the USA are actually homologated in the EU or Switzerland under rules that apply to mopeds or motorcycles. These are often referred to as “type approval” vehicles.
There is a gray area is one that is subject to much discussion at this time:
“If the motor will not assist the bike to go faster than 20 MPH, but the rider can add human power and propel the vehicle faster than that, with the motor maintaining the level of effort that was needed to go 20 MPH – is the vehicle legal or illegal?”
The authority that has jurisdiction over this is the CPSC, (Consumer Product Safety Commission). When asked, this was their response:
Based upon my staff’s review of the bicycle regulation, an electric bicycle meets the definition of low speed bicycle regardless of what additional speed the rider can achieve from their own input. The consideration for “low speed” is based solely on motor capability under the conditions specified. There is no incremental human input considered to determine whether you meet the requirements.
This is the staff’s interpretation of the regulation and the Commission can change the interpretation in the future based on additional information.
If you require any additional information, please contact Troy Whitfield, Team Lead, Mechanical Hazards, Regulatory Enforcement Division, Office of Compliance and Field Operations at 301-504-7548 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marc J. Schoem
Office of Compliance and Field Operations
301.504.7520 - phone
We note that while our concerns about safety equipment and vehicle design are still relevant, a well-designed and maintained bicycle can easily exceed 20 MPH, safely, under human power alone.
Our speculation is that it would take a very strong rider to propel an electrically assisted bike that limits power to a 20 MPH level at truly unsafe speeds – but that testing and careful examination of this issue, and how it affects safe vehicle design, would be prudent.
And we suggest that there will be further details to resolve, such as how the application of electrical assistance will be gauged. It seems likely that additional regulations will eventually be created that address controllers, how motor power is measured, etc.
We further note that when local people and local law enforcement are annoyed by the behavior of electric bike riders - a possible response (see New York City as an example) is the banning of, or restriction of, electric bikes. This is not good for anyone as it deprives the community of the benefits of electric two wheelers, as well as limiting the business of LEV suppliers and distributors.
Different countries and cultures have different ways of creating and enforcing laws. The basic theory nearly everywhere is that laws are created by political leadership / process in the best interests of public safety. These laws may not suit everyone, but if everyone follows them, there will be a safer experience for all. And that there is normally a method where such laws can be discussed, and changed as needed. (This is exactly what the EU has been doing with pedelecs and speed pedelecs.)
For Firms - selling illegal vehicle
For Manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of vehicles that do not comply with the applicable laws, here is a guide to how much trouble can descend upon them.
1. The CPSC can fine them. The number is, as I recall, 1 MILLION dollars per incident, or per vehicle, or per day, depending on the issue. That can add up fast! And since it is a cash positive activity for the CPSC, I suspect that they really, really like to find such situations. The primary way that the CPSC finds such cases is simple - business competitors report them. This can be done in 5 minutes over the Internet, no need to even make a phone call.
If you are annoyed with a competitor who is disregarding the law, check it out: www.saferproducts.gov/CPSRMSpublic/Section15/
If you are a concerned consumer, there is one for you as well: /www.saferproducts.gov/CPSRMSPublic/Incidents/ReportIncident.aspx
2. Imported vehicles that do not comply can be seized at the border. This is also called 'confiscation' and means the vehicles become very expensive fodder for a giant trash compactor. Other penalties may apply as well. The Customs officials learn about non-compliant vehicles either by reports from business competitors, or by investigation. And once an importer (company or individual) has been found to be a violator, their ability to import anything becomes more difficult.
Again, it can be done over the Internet: www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/trade/trade_programs/e_allegations/
3. Product Liability Lawsuit. If a consumer was to be injured on a non compliant vehicle - no matter what wiggle words were pronounced by the seller (see below: "Wiggle Words") the court can decide to hold the maker, distributor, retailer, responsible to the tune of millions of dollars - and anyone who has any assets that can be reached by the US government should be very respectful of how catastrophic this can be. These lawsuits usually start when someone is injured or thinks they were injured, in a situation that somehow involved the illegal vehicle. They call a plaintiffs lawyer, who, once they learn about the details, checks to see that the offending companies have money and if they do, brings a lawsuit against them.
To find a plaintiffs lawyer in the USA, all you need to do is read a billboard, watch TV, Google it. (1,710,000 results on Google!)
4. Insurance Company Ducks and Runs - if a product is deemed "illegal", you can be sure that any insurance company that was thought to be covering product liability will use this as an excuse to deny coverage.
5. Wiggle Words - There is a popular idea that if the illegal vehicle has a sticker on it that says "for off road use only" that there is no worry about complying with laws concerning vehicles used on the public roadways.
Such a sticker will actually result in a conversation between the plaintiff’s lawyer, the jury, and the judge that goes like this: "Those were words that everyone involved knew were a fiction. This vehicle was intended for use on the roadway, and in such use this ILLEGAL vehicle injured our client - the nice lady in the wheelchair over there...." The judge and the jury are very likely to agree and decide to shower the plaintiff with all the assets of all the companies that were involved in creating and distributing the illegal vehicle.
[A note on the safety of using bicycle parts for a vehicle traveling at motorcycle speeds...it is not a good idea. The reason that motorcycles have beefier tires, suspension, brakes, and lights...is because they are needed at speeds in excess of "bicycle" speeds. But we note that many of these high-speed bikes are literally bicycles in every aspect except their ability to achieve a higher speed. That could result in injuries caused by vehicle equipment that is not sufficiently robust and was never intended to be used at such speeds. And that is a case for a product liability lawsuit in itself.]
6. And then there is state law.... States have a variety of bad attitudes and sanctions to apply to people who sell vehicles that do not comply with local and federal law. This can result in a wide range of penalties, from fines to jail, to loss of business license and more.
For Consumers - operating an illegal vehicle
1. While most law enforcement officers are not aware of the details of electric bike legality, some of them are. When you encounter one that is aware of the issues, having the bike impounded (seized) and the operator ticketed (fined) is possible. If an impounded vehicle is found to be non compliant with the law, it can be confiscated. Tickets for operating a non-compliant vehicle can be expensive. While it is possible that a warning will be issued and nothing more - repeat offenders can expect a more severe response. And in some cases, having to walk home, pushing the bike, will suffice to encourage a different choice of steed.
2. A traffic citation (ticket) can be issued. And yes, it can count towards points off a driver's license in many cases. Not to mention big fines, and a bigger car insurance bill.
3. An argument can occur that escalates a traffic ticket into a greater charge - such as resisting an officer, or verbally assaulting an officer - as the consumer tries to educate the officer about the legality of his "off road" vehicle. This is an optional problem – chosen by those with poor judgment.
4. Reckless operation of any vehicle is an arrest able offense. The officer is usually the one who decides about the word "reckless". We note that higher speeds seem to encourage the use of that word. Reckless driving is an expensive offense and can result in various severe penalties, including possible jail.
Short summary: Higher speed electric bikes do not need to be illegal. Complying with the law is not difficult, and homologation of higher speed vehicles as mopeds and motorcycles is possible. Operating them in compliance with the law is not difficult, and the LEVA encourages all concerned to learn about and comply with the laws governing this useful, profit generating, green vehicles.
Ed Benjamin is Chairman of the Light Electric Vehicle Association
In the digital version of this article, we incorrectly identified the Specialized Turbo (picture above) as one of those bikes that pushes the boundaries of legalty for on-street use. In the case of the Turbo, though it can be pedaled - assuming you are Lance Armstrong - up to 45km/h (27 mph) - by CPSC definition is does comply with the regulations that define it as a bicycle.
Originally published: 06 Jun 2013
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