Electric bikes, or e-bikes, are governed by the CPSA (Consumer Products Safety Administration) a Federal Agency that oversees the production and operation of e-bikes throughout the country, and all 50 States. Congress amended Bill HR 727 (first enacted in 2001) to include the use of e-bikes which essentially states that e-bikes are limited by law to bikes that have pedals with a max 750W / 1HP and a top speed of no more than 20mph. In that regard e-bikes are classified as the same as bicycles that are not required to meet any vehicle standards. In other words, no license, no registration, and no insurance is required to operate e-bikes.
Unfortunately, here in California we have a big safety issue regarding e-bikes because some have total disregard for the Federal Law with respect to speed limit. Different people will have different opinions as to what the top speed of an e-bike should be. Also is the fact that there are some very bad and unscrupulous bike dealers who do not care what the law is regarding e-bikes. They are in the business to make as much money as they can without any consequences to themselves by not properly informing the consumer that they must obey the law as far as top speed, wearing a helmet, and obeying all traffic laws like all motorists are required to do.
Commercially made and available to the public bikes can go 45mph and some even 70, with minor modifications. These are absolutely and totally illegal for any road use in California due to their power rating far in excess of the Federal Law. These bikes can also be made also made by bolting on an e-bike kit to a standard pedal bike with very crude, and therefore very questionable, safety issues like non-existent brakes needed for safety and operation at speed with a now much heavier mass.
The Muddy Waters of California
Further compounding this Wild West e-bike situation in California is its own e-bike laws in breaking down with three levels of speed control. There are two modes of operation of an e-bike, PAS and POD. PAS refers to ‘Power Assisted’ and it energizes the motor only when the rider is pedaling and is ubiquitous for electric bikes up to the legal 20mph. POD means ‘Power On Demand’ and it works by activating a hand or thumb throttle up the legal limit. A California ‘Level 3’ e-bike is a PAS system capable of 28mph, that is not permitted to be throttle operated but by pedaling only. This is very confusing for anybody who gets such an e-bike because it is not allowed in a bike lane or a bike path. At 28mph (almost 30mph) it is then considered a vehicle, and therefore it must comply with vehicle laws just like a moped.
To be certain of Federal Law as well as State Law, do not exceed 20mph. Though e-bikes are like a pedal bike that you ride with less effort, be cautious about excessive power and the greater speed associated with it. It’s never a good idea to ride an e-bike at high motorcycle speeds. If you want to go at those high speeds, then get a motorcycle. It is designed for those speeds, with properly designed components like more powerful brakes able to slow down a heavy bike and beefier frame and steering components. Once again these laws are there for your protection.
Carl Lawton has expertise in public safety relating to bicycles on public roads in California from his work with California SHSP (State Highway Safety Plan), FHWA (Federal Highway Administration), CALTRANS (California Dept. of Transportation) CHP and DMV.