A complex web of e-biking legislation and regulations
The United States has 3,141 counties and county-equivalents in 50 states and the District of Columbia plus 121 county equivalents of commonwealths and territories.
Numerous counties, states, and federal parks and lands have different regulations and definitions of e-bikes. A county can have different rules for biking lanes and trails.
The US Bicycle Route System (USBRS) alone has 14,000 miles in 29 states and Washington DC. The TransAmerica Trail is part of the USBRS. The system will eventually have 50,000 miles of officially approved bicycle travel routes. Imagine the many different regulations about e-biking in this network and elsewhere.
This complex web of regulations is confusing to regulators, enforcers, and e-bikers. The moment you cross a border of a neighboring county or a state park, an e-biker may be subject to new rules and regulations. It isn't easy to keep track.
An Example from Washington DC
E-biking is allowed on the DC section of the Capital Crescent Trail, as the trail is in the National Park System. On the Maryland side of the trail in Montgomery County, e-biking is not allowed. There are no signs to alert e-bikers. The division line is halfway along the trail. See, for another example, our post on the Anacostia River Trail.
A national e-bike classification system
To bring order to the web of e-bike regulations and definitions across the US, People for Bikes, an industry coalition of bicycling suppliers and retailers, developed a classification system.
Over 20 states already have adopted model e-bike legislation that introduces the following classification system:
Source: People For Bikes.
The classification does not include the wattage of the motor. Besides the three classes of e-bikes, the National Park System and other land managers limit trail use to bicycles with a motor of not more than 750 watts. This limitation refers to the assist of a motor when pedaling. It does not refer to the wattage of an e-bike's battery.
The model e-bike law also introduces the requirement that "manufacturers and distributors of electric bicycles shall apply a label that is permanently affixed, in a prominent location, to each electric bicycle. The label shall contain the classification number, top assisted speed, and motor wattage of the electric bicycle."
Why e-bike classifications matter
Battery packs are integrated into the frame, and motors are becoming smaller, making it difficult to distinguish between regular bicycles and e-bikes. It takes a trained eye of a specialist to differentiate between classes of e-bikes. Only a small label may give away the class of an e-bike.
Can you guess the class of e-bike in the picture below? Is it a class 1,2, or 3 e-bike? See the answer at the end of the article.
It is essential to know about e-bike classification systems, as the class of e-bike is related to the rights and responsibilities of the user.
Liability and damages associated with e-biking
An e-biker may run into legal issues when a class of e-bike is used where it is not permitted. For example, riding a class 3 e-bike (up to 28 mph) on a trail that is open to only class 1 e-bikes (up to 20 mph) may lead to legal complications in case of non-compliance with e-biking regulations or after an accident.
It is just a matter of time before a growing number of cases are filed in courts that seek compensation for damages of a plaintiff who was hurt by an e-biker. In other words, the e-biker may be held liable for damages even while another biker or pedestrian was at fault. Think of how much compensation may result for medical bills, lost wages, pain, and suffering as a result of an accident.
Contributory negligence in cases of a collision between an e-bike user and motor vehicle
Likewise, an e-biker seeking compensation for damages while riding an e-bike of a certain class that is not recognized as a "vulnerable user" by legislation may have limited protection from the application of contributory negligence in cases of a collision with a motor vehicle.
Under contributory negligence, a plaintiff is totally barred from recovery if they were in any way negligent in causing the accident, even if the negligence of the defendant was much more serious.
Especially in states with harsh standards of contributory negligence of cyclists, e-bikers may be out of luck in the courts to seek compensation for damages.
Washington, DC used to be one of the few remaining jurisdictions with limited protection from applying contributory negligence to a cyclist's collision with a motor vehicle. This changed with the Vulnerable User Collision Recovery Amendment Act of 2019. Mayor Bowser signed the law on December 22, 2020.
Be aware of e-bike classes and where e-biking is allowed. Follow the law. Check state, park, and local e-bike regulations.
Buy a low-speed class 1 e-bike (up to 20 mph without a throttle) with a motor capacity of not more than 750 watts (1 hp) to avoid the complications of riding class 2 and 3 e-bikes.
Class 2 and 3 e-bikes are often not allowed on paths and trails designated for regular cycling, and may require a driver's license among other requirements (insurance, wearing helmets, registration).
The e-bike in the picture above is a Class 1 SuperCharger manufactured by Riese & Muller, with a maximum speed of 20 miles.
Footnote: Elizabeth McGowan wrote about her experience riding the TransAmerica Trail in her book: Outpedaling the Big C: My Healing Cycle Across America.
As usual, please check the latest regulations before heading out as we do not provide legal advice on this website.
Regulations of E-Bikes in North America. (2014). [online] Available at: https://ppms.trec.pdx.edu/media/project_files/NITC-RR-564_Regulations_of_E-Bikes_in_North_America_1.pdf [Accessed 2 Dec. 2020].
Nps.gov. (2020). Electric Bicycles (e-bikes) in National Parks - Biking (U.S. National Park Service). [online] Available at: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/biking/e-bikes.htm [Accessed 3 Sep. 2020].
Gregory discovered e-biking after 20 years of overseas work as project manager for the World Bank and USAID. He writes about e-mobility and e-biking in the DMV area, and loves the outdoors (white water kayaking, hiking and biking). He lives with his wife, Janet and Queenie the cat, in Washington DC. He recently e-biked 4,685+ miles across America and raised $180,000 for a charity.
Favorite e-bike: Riese & Muller Super Charger Class 3 touring e-bike.
Dr. Gregory F. Maassen
FOUNDER E-BIKE LOVERS