Note: Our legal pages refer to the UK only. Elsewhere, electric bike law varies widely between countries, and even between individual states in the USA, Canada and Australia. If in doubt, always check local regulations.
Electric bicycles are unique machines legislatively, being the only powered vehicles to be treated in exactly the same way as pedal cycles. This means you can ride one while disqualified from driving a car, motorcycle or moped, and you will not be subject to laws aimed specifically at motor vehicle drivers, such as drink-drive legislation. You must, of course, adhere to the rules of the road, and like any other cyclist, you can be prosecuted for riding without lights, riding dangerously, or riding while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. There are, in addition, a few key legislative requirements:
Electric Bike Legislative Requirements
- The rider must be aged at least 14
- The electric bike must not be capable of exceeding 25kph (15.6mph) while under power
Note: Like any other cyclist, you can ride as fast as you like when the motor is not providing assistance, but you must still obey traffic laws. In practise, power usually fades away quite gradually as speed increases, so a bike that tops out at 15mph with a heavy rider, may give useful assistance at 18mph or above with a light one. In practise, you are very unlikely to be prosecuted for anything other than a wild and reckless infringement of the rules.
- The electric bike must not weigh in excess of 40kg for a bicycle, or 60kg for a tricycle
- The continuous rated power of the motor must not exceed 250 watts
Note: This is the European limit, which the UK signed up to in 2002. The older 1983 UK legislation says 200 watts for bicycles and 250 watts for tandems and tricycles, and this also appears to be in force. In any event, the whole thing is a technicality, because a measurement of ‘continuous rated power’ is like measuring a piece of wiggly string. You will only get into trouble if your machine has a clearly accessible manufacturer’s plate saying something like ‘500 watt Turbo’ on it.
- The motor alone cannot be used to propel the bicycle, so power can only be brought in while the rider is pedaling
Note: The bicycle MUST be fitted with pedals, but don’t worry too much about the requirement to use them, as there is considerable debate about whether this applies in the UK. The 1983 legislation makes no distinction between pedaling or not pedaling while under power, although the newer 2002 European legislation does. From 2016, the European law will be fully ratified, but manufacturers will be able to get type approval for ‘twist-n-go’ models, and bikes bought now will remain legal under ‘grandfather rights’. What this means in practise is DON’T WORRY. (a) Policemen have better things to do, (b) electric bikes are not registered, so no-one can easily prove how old it is, and (c) the most popular bikes will probably get type approval pretty quickly anyway.
The electric bike rules are not very onerous in themselves, but be warned: if you are successfully prosecuted for breaking any one of them you will no longer be covered by the exemptions that apply to electric bicycles, but bear in mind that in three of the five above, the court would have to decide which law actually applied. In theory, anyone riding an electric bicycle at, for example, 18mph, could be prosecuted for riding a moped without a helmet, insurance, vehicle excise duty, MoT certificate, etc, etc. If caught riding while under-age or disqualified from driving, you would effectively by driving without a license, a serious offence. In practise, prosecutions are extremely rare, as the police really aren’t interested, but it’s worth knowing the rules.
Some electric bikes look very similar to mopeds or scooters, with fairings and motorcycle-style suspension. These machines are perfectly legal, provided they have pedals and obey all the rules above. The problem with riding one is that very few policemen will be aware of this loophole in the legislation, and you are liable to be stopped and cross-examined on a regular basis, unless you take to wearing a motorcycle helmet. In general, bicycle styling is a good idea!