We don't see alot of electric bikes (or mopeds) in our area, but they are quite common in Europe and China. With an aging population that prefers to avoid automobiles, they may become more common in our area as well.
Should the law treat them as a bicycle or a motorized pedalcycle (moped)? Or does it depend on speed and the power of the engine?
In Europe, the dividing line is 250 watts (1/3 horsepower) and 15 mph; that is, as long as the motor phases out with speed and cuts off at 15 mph, the driver has the rights of a bicyclist. You can ride on bikeways, don't need a license, and don't need insurance.
In the United States, the dividing line varies--and so does the legal significance of that line. Some states require a driver's license or a minimum age, others ban them on trails or sidewalks. Some do both. To some extent, that reflects greater caution about a type of vehicle that is not yet well understood in the United States. But it is also an indirect (and unnecessary) result of a federal definition designed for a different purpose. For purposes of manufacturing safety, the Consumer Products Safety Commission defines electric bicycle as any electrical moped with less than 1 horsepower and a top speed of 20 mph or less. States do not have to use that definition for trail access or drivers licenses. But drawing the line anywhere else would require a careful evaluation of what they are doing; and as Ralph Waldo Emerson (indirectly) pointed out, consistency is often simpler than a careful evaluation.
Recalling that kinetic energy equals MV2/2, electric bikes in the United States can bump into someone with about three times the force of the electric bikes in Europe. So putting one on a trail, or putting a child in the driver's seat, probably requires more caution here than in Europe.
The Maryland General Assembly, however, may soon throw caution to the wind, and redefine the term "bicycle" to include any cycle that meets the Consumer Products Safety Commission definition of electric bike. House Bill 205 has already passed the House, with minimal discussion. Because the bill redefines "bicycle" but adds no substantive requirements, any child or adult will be allowed to ride this type of moped on any highway or trail where bicycles are allowed. In Howard and most of Montgomery County, that would include sidewalks.
Interestingly, the proponents of the bill argued that the main reason to pass this bill is that the state and federal governments should have the same definition of "electric bicycle." I don't know if that is really true, since their purposes are very different. But even if it is true, this bill gives Maryland very different definitions of both "electric bicycle" and "bicycle". Here is the federal government definition that the CPSC uses:
For purposes of this section, the term "low-speed electric bicycle" means a two- or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 h.p.), whose maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 mph. 15 USC 2085.
And here is what Maryland's definition would be:
"Electric bicycle" means a bicycle that (1) is designed to be operated by human power with the assistance of an electric motor (2) is equipped with fully operable pedals; (3) has two or three wheels; (4) has a motor with a rating of 750 watts or less; and (5) is capable of a maximum speed of 20 miles per hour on a level surface when powered by the motor.
"Bicycle" means a vehicle that is designed to be operated by human power .... or an electric bicycle.
These two definitions agree on the power rating, but other than that there is a very big difference: The federal definition does not say that an electric bicycle is a bicycle; in the US code "bicycle" has its ordinary meaning. But House Bill 205 makes electric bicycles a type of bicycle.
When you realize how hard it has been to persuade the House Environmental Matters Committee to require drivers to pass cyclists with a clearance of three feet on all roads, the ease with which this bill passed seems remarkable. Why were they so eager to allow children to drive these mopeds on the highway? Why would a committee that almost required adult cyclists to wear helmets last year so readily allow electric mopeds to mix with pedestrians (who never wear helmets) on crowded trails such as the Capital Cresent?
Was this really their intention? Or did they merely think that they were changing an obscure legislative definition, without really knowing why it mattered? The hearing was only about 4 minutes (mp3). What do you think? Should advocates who want electric bikes allowed on trails have explained that this was their goal? Was it fair to tell the committee that they wanted the state's definition to match the federal definition?
(Jim Titus is a bicycle advocate from Prince Georges County)