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Electric Bicycles Nearly Racing Ahead of Legislation Regulating Them

In the early 1970s, soaring oil prices, a new interest in fitness among baby boomers and the growing availability of quality, European and Japanese made performance bicycles coincided to fuel a dramatic surge in U.S. bicycle sales. The “bike boom” of the era put cycling on the map for many Americans and created huge growth in the industry.

More recently, high oil prices, the changing needs of aging baby boomers, the Covid pandemic and revolutionary lithium-ion battery technology have led to a new bike boom. But this bike boom is focused on electric bicycles.

These bikes can be pedaled by riders, or with the flip of a switch, a rider can get the assistance of a battery-powered electric motor. Or the rider can choose not to pedal and allow the motor to do all the work. Depending on the level of assistance used by the rider, many e-bikes have a range of more than 20 miles on a single charge.

Electric bikes – a perfect and popular solution to a myriad of challenges

e-bikesRiders – from high school and college students interested in inexpensive transportation to baby boomers who wish to remain active despite aching knees and other physical limitations – have eagerly joined the e-bike pack in recent years.

In 2022, U.S sales of e-bikes topped 1 million, as global sales of the bikes approached 40 billion.

With some of the highest gas prices in the U.S., endless traffic challenges, environmental awareness, and year-round cycling-friendly weather, e-bikes have gained enormous traction in California. If you’ve stepped outside in any California metro area in recent years, you’ve seen them – everywhere. Unfortunately, all too often e-bike riders don’t always exercise extreme care in riding powered bikes, which may reach speeds much greater than those riders may be accustomed to from their childhood days of riding pedal-powered bikes.

Safety concerns and e-bikes

While statistics on electric bike accidents, injuries and fatalities specifically in California are not readily available, legislators quickly took note of the risks associated with the bikes and have passed laws designed to keep riders, motorists and pedestrians as safe as possible.

As the electric bike falls into a somewhat gray area, with performance not quite like bicycles, motorcycles, cars or trucks, legislators have struggled somewhat to develop sensible regulations for the bikes.

Electric bikes and the law – where things stand in California now

If you’ve bought an electric bike or are considering one, here are the basics of where things stand in California law for e-bike owners:

Electric bikes are divided into three classes

While all electric bikes in California are restricted to a motor producer no more than 750 watts, the performance of an e-bike puts it into one of three classes. A Class I e-bike has power assist available up to 20 miles per hour. While a rider can pedal the bike faster, the motor will disengage at 20 mph. Class 2 e-bikes have motors that, without assistance from the rider, can power the bike up to 20 mph. Class 3 e-bikes have power assistance up to 28 mph. While a rider may exceed that speed, the electric motor ceases to function at that speed.

E-bike operators must follow the same laws as regular cyclists

Under California law, e-bike operators must adhere to speed limits, passing, use of lanes and other rules of the road just as riders of human powered bicycles.

Most e-bike operators are not required to have a license

Operators of Class 1 and 2 e-bikes are not required to hold an operator’s license. In addition, there is no minimum age requirement for Class 1 and 2 electric bikes. All e-bike riders ages 18 and under are required to wear a helmet. Operators of Class 3 e-bikes must have a valid driver’s license, be a minimum of 16 years old and are required to wear a helmet.

E-bike operators are not required to have motor vehicle insurance

This may be something of a plus, but remember, if you’re operating an electric bicycle and injure someone or damage their property, you may be liable for significant damages.

E-bikes may be restricted from certain areas

As electric bikes are considered motorized vehicles, they may be banned from specific bicycle or walking paths, trails, parks or other locations.

E-bikes and sidewalks

Laws vary on riding electric bicycles on sidewalks. Some cities allow this, while others do not. Some may require electric bike operators to ride on bike lanes where available.

Riders may be ticketed

While riders of e-bikes may feel they can’t or won’t be ticketed for traffic violations – after all, tickets are rarely issued to human-powered bicycles – police throughout the state have and will continue to cite e-bike riders for traffic offenses.

Laws are changing rapidly, so be aware

It’s important to remember that laws regulating electric bikes have evolved rapidly in recent years and that they continue to do so as the popularity of e-bikes continues to grow. Understanding what is and isn’t legal in your specific county, city, or municipality is key. You also should know that even if you’re riding an electric bicycle, you still have extensive legal protection.

If you or a loved one has been injured in a bicycle accident on any type of bicycle, or if you have questions about your rights as a cyclist, contact us today for a complimentary consultation. Remember, laws governing cyclists on electronic bikes can change rapidly. We are advocates for all cyclists. We have extensive experience in representing cyclists. We know the laws protecting you and we’re here to help you.