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Electric Bikes in California: Navigating the Legal Landscape

Electric bicycles, or “e-bikes,” have become a common sight on the streets of southern California. However, navigating the regulations that govern these

quasi-vehicles can be challenging. In this article, we provide a summary of the legal landscape for e-bikes in California, including their classification and the rules that apply to their use.

What Exactly Is An E-Bike?

An e-bike resembles a conventional bicycle but is equipped with an electric motor. In California, to qualify as an e-bike, the electric motor must have a power output of 1,000 watts or less and be incapable of propelling the bike at speeds greater than 20 mph (as per Cal. Vehicle Code section 406(a)). E-bikes are legally distinct from electric motorized vehicles, which are subject to more stringent regulations.

What Laws Govern E-Bikes in California?

California e-bikes are treated similarly to standard bicycles and are not considered motor vehicles under the California Vehicle Code. As a result, e-bike operators are exempt from various requirements applicable to motorcycles and automobiles, such as operator's licenses, state or local registration, motor vehicle insurance, and license plates. However, e-bike riders must be over 16 years old and wear a properly fitted and fastened bicycle helmet.

The main legislation governing e-bikes in California is Assembly Bill 1096 (AB 1096), enacted in 2015. This bill classifies electric bicycles into three distinct classes, based on their top powered-speed and the level of pedal assistance the motor can provide:

  1. Class 1 Electric Bikes: The motor only provides assistance while the rider is pedaling, making the bike easier to propel.

  2. Class 2 Electric Bikes: These bikes have a throttle, allowing the rider to control the speed and amount of assistance provided by the motor. The motor can propel the bike and rider without pedal assistance, but its speed is capped at 20 mph.

  3. Class 3 Electric Bikes: These high-speed e-bikes receive motor assistance while pedaling, with the motor continuing to assist until the bike reaches speeds of 28 mph.

Where Can You Ride Your E-Bike?

In general, e-bikes are allowed on bike paths and bike lanes in California, except where specific local ordinances prohibit them. However, each class of e-bike has its own set of rules and restrictions.

Class 1 and Class 2 e-bikes are allowed on bike paths and bike lanes unless otherwise posted. They are also allowed on streets and roads where the speed limit is 25 mph or less, and riders must be at least 16 years old. Riders must wear a helmet and follow the same traffic laws as cyclists.

Class 3 e-bikes are not allowed on bike paths or bike lanes. They are allowed on streets and roads where the speed limit is 35 mph or less, and riders must be at least 16 years old. Riders must wear a helmet and follow the same traffic laws as cyclists.

It is important to note that local ordinances may vary, and it is always a good idea to check with your local authorities to make sure you are riding your e-bike legally.

Additional Regulations on the Horizon?

The California Legislature recently passed a law aimed at enhancing e-bike usage safety. The newly enacted Assembly Bill 1946 mandates the Department of Transportation to create evidence-based training and safety programs for electric bike riders. These programs will cover general e-bike riding safety, emergency maneuver skills, rules of the road, and laws specific to e-bikes. The Department is required to develop these programs by September 1, 2023, for statewide implementation.

Although AB 1946 marks a positive step towards safer e-bike use, it remains unclear whether the law will include any specific licensing or certification requirements and what exactly the new “evidence-based training and safety programs” will entail. Therefore, we urge all e-bike riders to prioritize their safety and that of others by obeying existing traffic laws, wearing helmets, and exercising caution when riding on shared roadways.

Can You Modify Your-E-Bike?

Modifying an e-bike is unlawful in California unless its manufacturer's label is replaced. E-bikes can generally be ridden on streets like non-powered bicycles but are not allowed on highways.

How Does Insurance Work With-E-Bikes?

Insurance is not mandatory for e-bike riders, but existing policies may cover accidents involving e-bikes. To determine if specific e-bike coverage is provided or available, contact your insurance company or agent. To insure your e-bike against theft, consider a specific bike insurance policy or check whether your homeowner's or renter's insurance policy covers it.

If you're involved in an accident while riding an e-bike, schedule a free consultation with our office to discuss your case. Some unique considerations might apply to e-bike cases, potentially complicating the recovery process, and so it is critical to speak with an experienced attorney as soon as possible.


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