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EBike Regulation: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

EBike regulation is a mess. While I applaud the efforts to get the three-tiered class system for EBikes recognized nationally, it’s confusing for most people and not easily enforceable. The proliferation of electrically motorized two and three wheeled vehicles that look like bikes, but are more powerful than what anyone would reasonably call a bicycle, make the current situation unsustainable.

Most of these issues can be rectified by simplifying the definition of EBike. Let’s stick with the federal definition of an EBike: 750 watt limit and a 20mph motorized speed limit. Experienced riders may feel safer being able to keep up with traffic, but 28mph isn’t really fast enough to compete with cars. Even with many city streets having 25mph speed limits, many places have higher limits and often drivers routinely push past this. Bicycle hardware and safety equipment is not designed to handle the extra stress of faster speeds, especially helmets and brakes. The forces involved go up geometrically with the velocity, meaning that small increases in speed raise the consequences of an accident more than riders might think. The Consumer Product Safety Commission test for helmets is done at about 17mph, far less than 28mph. Yes it’s possible to design for that, but then are we still talking about bicycles? Which brings us to the issue of eMopeds.

Two (and three) wheeled vehicles over 750 watts, with or without pedals and capable of motorized speeds greater than 20mph have their place in the modern city. However, they shouldn’t be considered an EBike. Many people want vehicles built like this and they should be able to own and use them legally. California law is pretty clear that more powerful vehicles should be registered and a motorcycle license is required. The problem is that dangerously higher powered eMopeds are indistinguishable from a legal EBike. In California, the DMV often refuses to register these bikes because they don’t have a VIN number. Illegal un-registered eMopeds are going to be a huge problem for ebike businesses. As the numbers of these vehicles increase, the numbers of accidents and injuries to riders and pedestrians will also increase and calls for stricter regulation will follow. Since people charged with enforcement may not be able to distinguish legal from non compliant vehicles, regulation may end up being more restrictive than desired. Anything the industry can do to make this simple and enforceable will help. Forget the classes, it’s either an ebike or not. If it’s going more than 20mph under power, it’s not an ebike.

You may have noticed I have intentionally not addressed a major feature of the three class system, the throttle. For people who are invested in the throttle/no throttle issue, I have one thing to say, get over it. Some of you may view the use of throttles as a moral failing and disguise your disgust as a safety issue. Regardless, people want throttles and they are not going away. Many the consumers and retailers are still warming up to the idea of EBkes as it is and the idea that “you don’t even have to pedal” is just a road too far for them. Anecdotally, I haven’t heard about serious injuries related to throttle use. In terms of regulation, this is a non issue. We should be focused on the safety of riders and pedestrians, and the mechanism for turning the motor on, either by moving the pedals or using a switch, doesn’t change the safety significantly. Additionally, the vast majority of EBikes with throttles also have electrical brake cut-offs, which turn off the motor when the brake lever is pulled. If you don’t know how to use the brakes on your bicycle, the throttle is not your biggest problem. eMopeds disguised as bicycles and cheap, poorly made bicycles with batteries that burst into flames are real problems.

The next frontier in EBike regulation will be batteries, but we will save that for a future post. Until then, ride safe and ride often!

Written by Eugene Dickey, Owner and Founder of Third Rail EBikes


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