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:
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:
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:
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.