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:
These rules are not very onerous in themselves, but be warned: if you are 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 have much better things to do than chase electric bicycles, 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!