What California electric bike laws do you need to operate one legally? Do you know when you are required to wear safety gear such as helmets and knee pads? Do you know the legal difference between an electric bike and a moped?
There are important distinctions under the law to note, especially if you’re a do-it-yourselfer interested in hacking your electric bike or otherwise modifying it. The basic definition of an electric bicycle in the State of California is one that includes both pedals and an electric propulsion system under 750 watts. Here’s what else you will need to know.
Some low-speed, throttle-assisted electric two-wheeled vehicles are not defined as bicycles under the law–at least not for the purpose of our discussion of eBikes here.
If a two-wheeled vehicle does not have pedals, it may not necessarily be considered an eBike–at least not under the law. It may be legally defined (depending on a number of variables) under the law in a different way such as a “neighborhood electric vehicle” or NEV. What follows is a discussion of eBikes but don’t assume the same rules apply to NEVs.
Some want to make a distinction between cycling laws and California state law governing eBikes. And one sticking point under those laws has to do with being under the influence while riding an eBike.
Under California cycling laws you may not find a specific reference to operating an electric bicycle while intoxicated but the accepted wisdom is that a traffic stop could result in you being charged with a DUI (where applicable) depending on the nature of the bike and the moving violation.
We explore the differences in eBike classes below, but generally speaking, a basic Class 1 eBike involved in a moving violation may have a less severe penalty than an incident involving a Class 3 eBike, for example.
Overall, it is best to avoid mixing substances and biking, regardless of the legal consequences.
The first thing to know about eBikes is that you do not need a driver’s license or plates. The law classifies EBikes in a similar manner to traditional bicycles, so while you don’t need a permit to ride you are required to obey all traffic laws including those for driving while under the influence of substances or alcohol. You can be ticketed and fined for such offenses.
If you operate an electric bike or ebike in California, you are likely operating one of three classes as recognized by the state beginning in 2015. State law defines an electronic bike as one with pedals and an electric motor with a capacity of less than 750 watts.
There are three separate classes based on speed and where the bikes may be used. The 2015 laws referenced here were passed before any local ordinances; it is entirely possible that some parts of the state have more restrictive laws on eBikes than the state requirements. Ride with caution.
California state law classifies a Class 1 eBike as a low-speed bike with a motor that only “assists”. The motor operates while pedaling and to be counted as a Class 1 eBike the motor must stop when the bike reaches 20mph. State law says Class 1 electric bikes are legal anywhere that traditional bicycles can operate. Helmets are required for all riders 17 and under.
The technical features of Class 2 eBikes under the law include throttle-assisted operations that require no pedaling. Like the Class 1 version, these eBikes cannot exceed 20 mph, and they can be ridden anywhere it is legal to ride a traditional bicycle. Helmets are required for all Class 2 eBike riders under 17 years old.
A Class 3 eBike is defined as a speed pedal-assisted electric bicycle. Like the other two classes above, Class 3 bikes have a motor that operates when the rider is pedaling. Class 3 eBike motors can go up to 28 mph and you must wear a safety helmet. These bikes cannot be used on Class 1 eBike pathways unless permitted by a local ordinance. In order to legally ride a Class 3 bike, you must be 16 or older.
Are eBike owners permitted to customize their bikes to make them faster or more powerful? Under the law you are not permitted to do so unless you also modify the speed classification label to reflect the accurate power of the modified vehicle.
Technically speaking, and under California state law, a moped is classified as a motor vehicle and not a bicycle. It has no pedals, it has a motor, it has no maximum speed limitation like eBikes do, and riding a moped requires both a helmet and a license.
Bike rental operations may include one or all the different classes of eBike; operation of these vehicles is fairly unrestricted until you get to Class 3, which is not permitted on Class 1 trails or bike paths.
When riding an eBike, some laws may be enforced differently. Earlier we mentioned DUIs; did you know there is no legal alcohol limit for operating a bicycle while intoxicated?
Instead of measuring your blood alcohol level, some sources report the officer will simply use her judgment to determine whether you are impaired or not. Cycling DUIs may not result in a loss of driving privileges the way a similar violation in a motor vehicle might.
The state laws governing these vehicles are not the only rules you will have to obey. Depending on where you live or ride there may be additional requirements for safety equipment, hours of operation, and more. Not all areas allow you to operate an eBike; any place typically off-limits to traditional bicycle traffic such as a state highway is also off-limits to eBikes.
Age is an important factor; Class 3 eBikes can only be legally ridden by someone 16 or older. Class 1 and Class 2 eBikes require helmets for all riders under the age of 17; Class 3 eBikes require helmets for all riders.
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Joe Wallace has been covering real estate, mortgage and financial topics since 1995. His work has appeared on ABC, The Pentagon Channel, Veteran.com plus a variety of print and online publications. He is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News.