Just the other day I saw a mom with two kids in the trailer on the back of her bike happily cruising (with a relaxed pedal speed) up a serious hill in the Presidio. Then I noticed... she had an electric bicycle.
But... as the inquisitive personal injury attorney I am, I thought –“Hmmm. What laws govern e-bikes? Bicycle laws or motorcycle laws?”
First of all, to know what laws apply to electric bikes, you need to know if a bike qualifies as a state-defined "electric bike" or not. Indeed, just because it has two wheels and is powered by electricity does not make it an e-bike. Similar machines are legally classified as electric motorized vehicles under state and federal laws and, generally, are subject to much more scrutiny and oversight.
So what is an e-bike? An electric bike (e-bike) is similar to a standard bicycle, except that it is equipped with an electric motor. To qualify as an e-bike (rather than a motorized vehicle) in California, the electric motor must have a power output of 1,000 watts or less and must be incapable of propelling the bike at more than 20 miles per hour. (See Cal. Vehicle Code section 406(b) for a complete definition.)
Seems simple, right? Not so fast!
This speed classification merely refers to the motor’s ability to propel the bike above 20 miles per hour, not the capability of the bike itself to travel over 20 miles per hour (from pedaling or downhill momentum). Basically, an e-bike must not be able to travel at more than 20 miles per hour by means of the motor alone, but CAN go over 20 miles per hour if the rider reaches that speed through manually pedaling the e-bike like a standard bicycle, or jamming down a hill over 20 mph.
There are multiple classes of electric bikes (defined by law) but this basic definition separates e-bikes from electrically powered motor vehicles and paints a picture of what an electric bike is in broad strokes.
As legally defined vehicles, e-bikes are subject to several laws in California (and even some federal regulations as well). Under California law, an e-bike is essentially treated the same as a standard bicycle—with a few exceptions. E-bikes are to be operated like conventional bicycles in California and are not considered motor vehicles under the California Vehicle Code.
As such, e-bikes in California are exempted from various laws and requirements that apply to motorcycles and automobiles. For example, e-bike operators need not have or use:
None of these requirements that automobile operators will be very familiar with apply.
E-bike riders, however, must be over 16 years of age and must wear a properly fitted and fasted bicycle helmet.
There are, in addition, several more requirements for e-bike riders but those are the two major ones that cause the most legal problems for e-bike owners.
Assembly Bill 1096 (AB 1096) is the legislation that has the most authority over e-bikes in California. AB 1096 was approved and enacted in 2015 with the help of strong backing from then-Governor Jerry Brown. The legislation was hailed as one of the "most progressive" pieces of bike law in America by several cycling groups for the way it protects the rights of cyclists while balancing the need for public safety.
This bill only applies to e-bikes that:
(If you remember, e-bikes are originally defined as machines equipped with electric motors of 1,000 watts or less.)
AB 1096 breaks all electric bicycles down into three distinct "classes." Each class is then subject to regulation at the state and local level. The classes were determined based on two factors:
This is the "lowest" class of e-bike and is defined as "an electric bicycle" which receives assistance from a motor only while the rider is pedaling. In essence, the motor only provides inertial assistance, making the bike easier to propel, and cannot be used to move the bike by itself.
These bikes are defined by the addition of a throttle—which allows the user to increase the amount of assistance delivered by the motor and—theoretically—control the overall speed of the bike.
On these machines, the motor is capable of propelling the bike and rider by itself without pedal assistance.
So what separates these e-bikes from the next class up? The speed at which they can travel. Class 2 E-bikes are legally classified as "low-speed" electric bicycles. Specifically, the motor cuts out when the bicycle achieves 20 mph, leaving the cyclists (or gravity) to provide any propulsion above that.
By default, Class 3 electric bicycles are high-speed e-bikes. They are defined by AB 1096 as electric bikes that receives assistance from a motor only when pedaling but the motor will continue to assist until the bike reaches speeds of 28 mph.
Because these are the most powerful classification of e-bike, they face more restrictions than other less-powerful machines. For example, the use of class 3 electric bicycles is prohibited on bicycle paths or trails, bikeways, bicycle lanes, equestrian trails, or hiking or recreational trails unless that path is "within or adjacent" to a road.
In addition, local authorities are able to pass ordinances allowing class 3 e-bikes on these types of path if they so choose. However, most municipalities in California have not, preferring to leave these types of bike path and recreational trails open to more leisurely modes of transportation.
Because e-bikes are defined and classified under California law, it's unlawful to modify an electric bicycle (or have one modified) unless its manufacturer's label is replaced. For example, you cannot simply replace your bike's standard electric motor with a more powerful one. If you're caught doing so, you could be facing fines and other legal entanglements.
E-bikes, for the most part, are treated like non-powered bicycles. That means they can be operated on the street—just like any other bicycle. It also means they cannot be ridden on highways. However, when it comes to bike lanes and whether or not your specific electric bicycle can be used on one, things become a little more complicated.
The problem arises because, in addition to classifying e-bikes by speed and motor type, the state has also classified their bikeways. To determine whether or not your e-bike can be ridden on a given bikeway, you need to know that bikeways designation.
These paths are designated for exclusive use by bicyclists and pedestrians. They are located away from main roads (though they may be paved). Generally one sees these types of bike path in nature preserves, parks, and other locations in which municipalities have invested funds to create recreational areas.
Only Types 1 and 2 e-bikes ("motor-assist" and "low-speed" e-bikes) can use Class 1 Bike Paths.
These types of legally defined bikeways are protected, one-way bike lanes that are integrated within an existing street. These types of bike lanes will always have painted markings that separate travel lanes.
Class 1, 2, and 3 electric bikes are allowed on California's Class 2 Bike Lanes.
These bike lanes are integrated into streets and roadways but do not always have special markings. These types of bikeways are often identified through the use of roadside signage.
Class 1, 2, and 3 electric bikes are allowed on California's Class 3 Bikeways.
These bikeways are designated specifically for bike traffic and can be integrated into existing roadways, however, they are almost always designated with special markings and separated by physical barriers (such as space, curbs, parking lanes, sidewalks, or bollards).
Only Type 1 and 2 electric bikes are legally allowed on Class 4 Bikeways.
Of course, these electric bikes are not allowed to ride on sidewalks in San Francisco, or any city that has a specific law prohibiting it. California law allows local municipalities to make their sidewalk laws for bikes but these exceptions are generally created to allow children under a certain age (usually 10 or 11) to ride away from traffic. Since children under 16-years-old aren't allowed to operate electric bikes, these sidewalk exceptions do not apply.
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As stated above, insurance is not required to lawfully ride an e-bike. However, your existing policy may provide coverage for an accident that involves your e-bike. Base policies will not often specifically cover accidents involving electric bikes but will cover personal injury accidents. This allows you to get financial compensation if you're involved in an accident even if you (or the person who caused the accident) don't specifically have e-bike insurance.
To determine if specific electric bike coverage is provided or offered, you should contact your insurance company or agent.
If you want to insure your e-bike against theft, you have a couple of options. You can get a specific bike insurance policy to cover the cost of replacing a stolen e-bike. Such policies are great, but can be a bit hard to find and may be costly.
Another option is to get coverage through your homeowner’s or renter's insurance policy. Such policies often allow victims to recoup financial damages for losses of physical property regardless of whether the property was inside a dwelling. However, be sure to check with your insurance agent to verify whether your e-bike is covered.
Of course, if you get into an accident on your electric bicycle, be sure to contact an experienced bicycle accident attorney in San Francisco or Los Angeles bike lawyer to talk to about your case. While many of the same parameters that define standard bicycle accidents apply, there may be special considerations in individual e-bike cases that could complicate the recovery process.