Electric bicycle legal hodgepdge

A task force under the auspices of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD) is currently reviewing parts of the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC), the national model traffic law in the USA. The NCUTCD has taken on this task because the National Committee for Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances (NCUTLO), which maintained the Uniform Vehicle Code, unfortunately ceased operations about 10 years ago.

I am the bicyclist representative on the NCUTCD task force. Electrically-assisted bicycles are one of the hot-button issues I will have to address.

Due to the novelty of electrically-assisted bicycles, the lack of guidance in the UVC and the lack of a user constituency — bicycling advocacy organizations having largely ignored or disparaged this increasing trend — electrically-assisted bicycles are not being addressed in a consistent or logical way under the law. In some places, electrically-assisted bicycles fall under laws that apply to gasoline-powered motorized bicycles; in others, not. We are seeing a tug of war between manufacturers’ self-interest and well-intentioned but poorly-thought-out restrictions imposed by legislators concerned about safety — as with Segways, but a bigger problem than with Segways, which have never been very common.

In my opinion, vehicles defined as electrically-assisted bicycles should be permitted wherever bicycles are permitted, but should not be capable of more than 20 mph under motor power. They shouldn’t be hard-limited to that speed, because higher speed is often possible downhill — for bicycles without electrical assist too — and is advantageous to the rider, and because speed limits are reasonably imposed locally based on conditions rather than globally based on vehicle type. These opinions are consistent with the product definition and regulation promulgated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The situation with state laws is more confused. I live in Massachusetts, so let’s take the Massachusetts laws as an example. They are a mess:


Link to Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 90, Section1: Definitions

The definition for “motorized scooter” in Massachusetts law includes gasoline OR electrically-powered ones, stand-up or sit-down, including those also propelled by human power. An electrically-assisted bicycle, then, is identified as a “motorized scooter”. The definition for “motorized bicycle”, on the other hand, applies only to those with a gasoline motor. The definitions overlap awkwardly.

Motorized-bicycle driving rules:

Link to Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 90, Section1b: Motorized-bicycle driving rules

These rules apply only with a gasoline motor: 25 mph max speed, 16 year minimum age, driver’s license required (obsolete — now this is the minimum age for a learner’s permit) , carte blanche to overtake on the right, somehow requiring drivers turning and crossing from the left to have X-ray vision to see through other motor vehicles, same as in Massachusetts’s rather unique bicycle laws (!!!!)  Motorized bicycles are permitted in bike lanes, but prohibited on paths: that is sensible because of the noise, pollution and typically higher speed than with bicycles. A helmet is required.

Motorized-scooter driving rules:

Link to Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 90, Section1e: Motorized-scooter driving rules

Maximum speed 20 mph (regardless of power source –gasoline, electric, human). This law requires “keeping to the right side of the road” — which unreasonably, means not going left of center of the road or crossing a marked centerline to overtake, but can easily be misinterpreted as requiring overtaking on the right. There is no mention of use on paths or bike lanes, despite noise and pollution of gasoline-powered motorized scooters which makes them inappropriate on paths, where electrically-powered ones are more acceptable. A license or learner’s permit is required, as for motorized bicycles, but there is no mention of age; a learner’s permit can be obtained at 16 years of age. There is a totally unreasonable prohibition on use at night. A helmet is required.

The motorized scooter law was passed in a rushed, knee-jerk reaction to the fad of “mini-motorcycles” a couple of years ago.


Placing electrically-assisted bicycles in the same category with gasoline-powered mini-motorcycles and standup scooters doesn’t make much sense from the point of view of where their use would be appropriate. Prohibiting the use of electrically-assisted bicycles at night writes them off as useful transportation.

We need to do better than this. I hope and expect that the Uniform Vehicle code revision will come up with sensible laws to cover this increasingly popular vehicle type, and that Massachusetts will revise its law.

Also please see my post on this blog about electrically-assisted bicycle types and trends.

12 responses to “Electric bicycle legal hodgepdge

  1. How is there a safety difference between vehicles powered in various ways? Are lead-acid or Lithium ion batteries risk free? Is there a safety difference between motors fueled on electricity, gas, gas+oil, or propane?

    For sure Mass Laws need an overhaul in the confusing array of vehicle definitions. Fines need to be increased and applied to bicyclists. They blow through lights constantly and play bike messenger around greater Boston. Enforcement is a part of education. Riders need to learn the laws before they grow up and drive cars.

  2. Actually there are safety differences, due to differing typical speeds, etc. There are also differences in annoyance from noise, and in pollution potential.

    A major safety issue has to do with parking, storage and electrical recharging. I addressed these in an earlier post.

    As to lawbreaking by bicyclists: please don’t stereotype. Enforcement is lacking in Massachusetts, and in the USA in general — we have a freewheeling culture of road use. I don’t expect that to change rapidly. Lawbreaking is reduced by education and by infrastructure which discourages it, not only by enforcement.

  3. Traffic laws are focused on safety. EPA defines noise and pollution policy. Laws of physics, E=0.5xMxVxV, apply no matter the power source. A light motorcycle and rider going almost 13mph has equal energy as that rider going 20mph on a bicycle. Both will harm pedestrians, sending them flying, likely incurring head injury upon landing.

    I seldom see motorists run red lights, cyclists every few minutes. Normalize for car vs bike volumes and cyclists are over ten-thousandfold more reckless, in general. Mass doesn’t enforce ANY laws on cyclists. Cops profile motorists-only for stops/ticketing. What infrastructure will get cyclists to obey traffic laws? Cops could stop ignorant cyclists and send them to traffic school at their expense instead of ticketing if you prefer. Cops themselves need schooling to learn that laws apply to cyclists.

    Would electric assist be allowed for all cyclists, or just those able to generally follow rules, wear a helmet, and hold a license or learner’s permit?

  4. I am interested in buying an electric bicycle. I live in Mass. Any updates on changes in the law?

  5. John Allen writes: “In my opinion, vehicles defined as electrically-assisted bicycles should be permitted wherever bicycles are permitted, but should not be capable of more than 20 mph under motor power.”

    Why do you feel that vehicles should not be permitted to have a full spectrum of top speeds from blade skaters all the way up to Ferraris? Human powered bikes certainly fall within that spectrum, as would power-assisted bikes. 20mph sounds pretty arbitrary. Why not 21 or 25? Or even 25? Any of those are a LOT less than what even a cheap 4-wheeled vehicle is capable of.

    • The reason for this is to define what is permitted on a shared-use path. Sure, there can be faster vehicles. There are — motor scooters including electric ones, motorcycles. But they aren’t permitted on shared-use paths, nor should they be. Quiet, non-polluting electrically-assisted bicycles are different.

  6. I guess I was thinking about road operation. Still, I’m not convinced of the validity of the principle of crippling the vehicle rather than of combined engineering and enforcement to keep speeds down. using the max speed argument, might not government require cars to be capable of no more than the same speed except on major highways given today’s technology? How do you think such a proposal would be received by the motoring public? Certainly, even timid cyclists would be less reluctant to ride on roads without “special” facilities if they knew none of the cars could do over 20mph.

  7. hi john,
    in case you need any more evidence of legal hodgepodge you can read about the mess we have in AZ

  8. I was glad to find your blog. My wife and I own several electric bicycles. None of them exceed 20 mph. We are elderly, and after years of staying away from bicycling we came back but found it better with a little assistance. We have been thinking about riding in Massachusetts, and I began searching for electric bicycle laws and regulations. You are correct in your analysis that Massachusetts has not properly addressed the electric bicycle, and we hope that you are successful in getting electric bicycles classified as any other bicycles in your work with the task force. There are many new electric bicycle manufacturers in the U.S., and it can expected that more and more electric bicycles will be sold and used in the U.S. My understanding is that they are widely used in Asia and Europe.

  9. I think this electric bicycle indeed protect our environment , so agree with you.

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