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Electric bikes and the law: E-bike rules and regulations

Electric bike or motorbike? We address the legal issues surrounding electronically assisted pedal cycling

Before we begin our summary of the laws surrounding cycling electric, we must do so with the caveat that they are subject to change.

For one thing, the rules in England, Scotland and Wales have differed from those in Northern Ireland until very recently (which we’ll cover at the end of this article).

You shouldn’t have to be fluent in legalese to understand your obligations as an e-bike rider. Here, we’ve attempted to avoid jargon and make it absolutely clear what’s expected of you by the law.

The electric bike has changed somewhat over the years. For one thing, the twist-and-go throttle once favoured throughout Europe has more or less disappeared in recent years, replaced by motors that require some input from the rider. That’s wise from a safety point of view and it’s not bad for your health to have to do a bit of work either.

This means your electric bike must have pedals that can be used to propel it forwards. In the worst-case scenario, where your battery drains before you make it home – although this situation should be easily avoided with semi-regular charging – you can see why this is considered essential.

Your supplier should not offer you any electric bike with a power output over 250 watts or sell you an e-cycle capable of assisting you beyond 15.5mph. This rule applies to any kind of electric bike, even electric tricycles.

With these readings you’ll be perfectly legal riding on the road or cycle paths – or, indeed, anywhere off-road where cycling is already legal, should you be fortunate enough to have access to such facilities.

Any electric bike that does not meet the above standards is considered a motorbike in law. That means it is subject to type approval, as well as any attached taxes, registrations and licence requirements, and the legal requirement that you wear a full motorcycle helmet.

Speed pedelecs and the law

The faster, higher-powered machines known as speed pedelecs are popular in some mainland European countries – mainly countries where generous cycling infrastructure exists, such as Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands – which have made special laws for them. Rules can even differ from region to region.

However, in the UK speed pedelecs are distinct from electric bikes – in fact, the pedelec is classed as a motorcycle. That said, certain UK retailers do sell such bikes and even offer to handle the associated paperwork (for a fee).

The process is again subject to your licence, tax and registration requirements and the legal obligation to wear a hot, heavy motorbike helmet, and such bikes even require a number plate just like any moped would.

Type approval rules apply for speed pedelecs that are sold ready to travel at speeds of up to 28mph assisted. These vehicles are carefully designed to do so, as higher speeds mean greater loads than occur on normal e-bikes.

Some people may attempt to modify normal e-bikes (or fit kits to non-powered bicycles) to turn them into ‘speed pedelecs’ but we do not recommend this – in fact certain manufacturers are making motors tamper-proof to prevent such de-restrictions.

Speed pedelecs are often supplied with a more powerful 500-watt motor and some come with features more typical of a genuine motorcycle, such as wing mirrors and indicators.

If you’re handling vehicle insurance for a speed pedelec you may encounter some difficulty. Many insurers won’t have encountered this type of vehicle specifically, although you may find their policies are similar to those covering mopeds. BikeSure is one such insurer that we are aware of that understands the difference.

When obtaining a driving licence there are some points to be aware of, depending on your age. If you passed your test before 2001 then you are said to have ‘grandfather rights’. If it was after that you’ll need to complete a motorcycle CBT course, costing around £100.

Speed pedelecs are also required to pass an annual MOT test. As with any motor vehicle, it’s down to you to take the pedelec to your friendly local MOT test centre… and watch the mechanics scratch their heads.

They may not have encountered one before – but they are entitled to perform an MOT test on them.

Northern Ireland

Thankfully, the memo that an electric bike is not a motorbike and that the e-bike regulations seen across the rest of the UK make good sense has recently made it to Northern Ireland too.

In May, thanks to the efforts of infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon, among others, NI fell in line with the UK rules, removing the need for riders to expend an estimated £290 on things like tax and insurance for their electric bikes.

You can now cycle happily on public roads without the need to adorn your e-bike with a number plate.

This article first appeared in Issue 1 of Cycling Electric, which you can buy here:

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