Is a License Required To Ride An Electric Bike?
Mopeds, scooters, electric bikes—there are a variety of options to choose from if you are searching for an alternative to a traditional motorcycle. As consumers, we usually make our choices based on price, speed, dimensions, maintenance costs and other factors, but we should also bear in mind our safety and legal responsibility. One way or another, all the above-mentioned examples are means of transportation, as well as road users, and thus they fall under traffic rules and other requirements associated with vehicles like licensing, registration, plates, insurance, etc. What?! Does all this stuff have something to do with electric bikes?!
Well, it depends. The problem with electric bicycles resides in their definition and classification. They are termed variously in different countries, and sometimes even within one country. And sure, there are countries where no official name and definition are adopted at all. This mess creates problems for owners of e-bikes, as they simply don’t know which rules they need to obey. And what about the United States? Are any plates, licenses or registration required to ride an electric bicycle legally on public roads here?
Electric Bike Federal Regulations
Actually, the problem is a lot more prominent in the United States since there is an obvious disagreement in e-bike definition on the federal and state levels, and there are even more differences when it comes to states.
On the federal level, electric bikes are only defined as consumer products that need to be manufactured as specified in certain rules to provide safety for consumers. The rules are established by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Furthermore, according to the federal regulations e-bikes that have 2 or 3 wheels, properly functioning pedals and an electric motor generating less than 750W and are able to travel only at a speed under 20 mph when driven by the motor alone, are considered low-speed electric bicycles and cannot be classified as motor vehicles. However, manufactures can produce e-bikes with a higher power output and maximum speed, and there are plenty of such bikes sold in the U.S. Funny, but since they don’t conform to the above-mentioned definition, these electric bicycles are taken for motor vehicles, thus falling under DOT and NHTSA regulations with regard to their safety rules.
Consequently, your e-bike can be classified either as a low-speed electric bicycle or as a motor vehicle based on its technical specification. And this refers to your bike as a consumer product – i.e., it’s about safety standards the manufacturer must comply with. But what about using your bicycle on public roads? Surprise, all these federal regulations have no connection with the application of e-bikes outside your house or backyard since this falls under local vehicle codes. As it seems very unlikely that you are planning to ride only in your backyard, let’s move to state regulations.
Electric Bikes State Regulations
At this point, you might think that if your e-bike is typified as a low-speed electric bicycle, you need to follow some rules that are common to all low-speed electric bicycles. And vice versa, if your e-bike is taken for a motor vehicle, there are clear rules for this type of motor vehicle. Nope! The problem is that some states define and classify e-bikes differently from the federal regulations, while other states even didn’t bother to mention electric bikes in their vehicles codes. So, there is no easy answer to the question what local requirements to electric bikes are.
Look at how it works. In 2016, California authorities passed a law regarding electric bikes, defining them as bicycles that feature properly functioning pedals and an electric motor generating less than 750W. Then, the law classifies e-bikes as:
- bikes with a pedal-assist system alone—those that cannot ride faster than 20 mph and have a motor driving the bike only when the bicyclist is pedaling;
- bikes with a power-on-demand system—those that cannot ride faster than 20 mph and have a motor driving the bike regardless of pedaling;
- speed pedal-assisted bikes—those that cannot ride faster than 20 mph, have a speedometer and a motor driving the bike only when the bicyclist is pedaling.
These 3 classes differ only in that the bicyclists riding third class e-bikes must be at least 16 years old, they are required to wear safety helmets, and they are not allowed to carry passengers. With that, the California Motorcycle Handbook clearly explains that you need neither driver’s license nor plates to ride a bike of any class.
Well, it was easy, wasn’t it? But what if your bike can build up a speed of more than 28 mph? Yes, most electric bicycles come with a lower speed, but there are high-speed models like the Blacktrail BT-01 manufactured by PG Bikes, this bike is capable of traveling at the top speed of 65 mph (or at least the manufacturer claims so). In this case, your bike turns into something other than an electric bicycle. Then, what is it? Maybe, a motorized bicycle or moped? If so, it turns out that you do need a motorcycle license either with M1 or with M2 endorsements. By the way, a helmet is also a must.
Moreover, if your bike can go faster than 30 mph, then it is NOT a motorized bicycle. Or if it features a motor of more than 1,000 watts. Or if the motor produces less than 4 gross brake horsepower. And what about automatic transmission — do you have one? Probably, you can even define your bike as a motor-driven cycle. Congrats! You need an M1 license and a registration.
Now, you can see how even if you consider your bicycle as an e-bike, this doesn’t mean that the law defines it in the same way. Even within the California Vehicle Code, it can be anything from a moped to an electric bicycle, and the requirements as to the licensing vary, too. And don’t even ask about the variations across all states—it can drive you crazy! Some states define e-bikes based on their speed, others—based on their top power, not to mention additional features. So, depending on your state or county of residence, your e-bike can be identified as any of the following:
- motorized bicycle
- electric helper-motor bicycle
- motor-driven cycle
- electric bicycle
- pedal cycle with an electric assist
- electric-assisted bicycle
- bicycle and so on.
Isn’t it lovely? The good news is that in most states, where electric bikes are differentiated from other motor-driven cycles, you are not required to obtain a license. However, there are exceptions, so you cannot completely rely on this rule. And what are you supposed to do?
How to Find out Whether You Need a License to Ride an Electric Bike
- Start by exploring your e-bike labeling. In many states, manufacturers are required to label their bikes properly, thus showing its classification, as well as the maximum speed and motor wattage. If no labeling is available, learn your bike’s specifications. Also, you can contact the manufacturer or distributor, if you know your bike’s brand and model, or you can find the specs simply by browsing the Web. Anyway, you should get to know the main technical characteristics, since this is important for defining your bike’s type.
- Visit your local DMV website and download the Motorcycle Operator Handbook. Look through the sections where definitions and license requirements are provided (usually, you can find them at the beginning of the handbook). In many cases, you can find all the information you need right in the handbook.
- If not, search through the DMV website. Typically, you can just enter something like "motorized bicycle" or "electric bicycle" as a search query to get helpful links.
- If you don’t get the answer on the DMV website, do the same with your local vehicle code. Use keywords and a search box to facilitate the task.
- If you still have some doubts about your particular situation, don’t hesitate to contact or visit your DMV office. Don’t forget to have your specifications at hand since your visit will otherwise be pointless.