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Buying an e-bike

14 June 2011

an electric bikeAn e-bike, or electric bike, is a bike with an electric motor. Basically, the motor is there to help you with the burden of pedalling. This can, I’m sure, be very comforting, especially if you live in south Bristol.

If you’re thinking of buying an e-bike, there’s one very important thing to bear in mind: you’ll want to make sure that it actually is an e-bike.

If you buy the wrong thing, you could end up with something which, legally speaking, is a motorbike.  In which case you could need a licence and insurance, a vehicle excise duty (or “road tax”) disc and a motorbike-grade helmet in order to use the thing.

You’ll also want to make sure, whether you’re buying or selling, that your e-bike is sold with the necessary kit.

What counts as an e-bike?

The important question is whether the machine is, legally speaking, an electrically assisted pedal cycle. When I say e-bike, what I mean is a bike that falls within this definition.

An e-bike can only have two or three wheels. Any more wheels, and it won’t be an e-bike. (Electrically Assisted Pedal Cycles Regulations 1983 (SI 1983/1168), r. 3)

An e-bike has to have pedals, by means of which it is capable of being propelled. This means that the pedals have to be able to power the bike “in a safe manner in its normal day-to-day use”. So if the machine is really a scooter, with the pedals added just for show, it won’t count as an e-bike. (EAPCR r. 4(b); Winter v DPP [2003] RTR 14, §8)

An e-bike can’t weigh more than 40kgs (for a normal two-wheeled bike) or 60kgs for a tricycle or tandem bike, when weighed on its own – without any load or rider. (EAPCR r. 4(a))

Most importantly, an e-bike has to have the right kind of motor. The motor:

  • Can only be electric (no other form of power is allowed). (EAPCR r. 4(c))
  • Cannot have a continuous rated output, when the nominal voltage of the battery is supplied, of more than 0.2 kilowatts (for a two-wheeled bicycle) or 0.25 kilowatts for a tricycle or tandem bike. Unless you’re a bit of a technical whizz, you’re probably not going to be able to test this in the shop. But you can ask the seller. And, presumably, the documentation that comes with the bike should have details on this. (EAPCR r. 4(c)(i))
  • Must be such that it cannot propel the vehicle when it is travelling at more than 15 mph. So the motor needs to be designed to cut out when the bike is going faster than 15mph (for example when it’s going downhill). If the machine has an ‘off-road’ switch, so that the motor can power the bike at more than 15mph when ‘off-road’ mode is switched on, it seems that the machine won’t count as an e-bike. That’s the view of the Department for Transport, and it seems likely (reading the legislation) that they’re right. (EAPCR r. 4(c)(ii))

If you buy a machine which complies with these requirements, it will be exempt from the definition of a motor vehicle under the Road Traffic Acts (for example RTA s. 189(1)(c)).  This means that, if you buy a proper e-bike, you won’t need a licence to ride it on the road, there’s no compulsory insurance, and you won’t have to pay vehicle excise duty (often mis-described as “road tax”). There’s also no rule requiring you to wear a helmet.

But this doesn’t mean that, legally speaking, e-bikes are treated in the same way as pedal cycles. There are some important differences in the rules on using e-bikes on the road. I’ll cover these in future posts.

If, on the other hand, you buy a machine which is motorised but doesn’t comply with the requirements above, then it’s likely (if it’s a kind of machine which “might well be used on the road”) to count as a motorcycle. In which case you would need insurance, a licence, a road tax disc and a motorbike helmet. (RTA ss. 185(1), 189(1)(c); DPP v King [2008] EWHC 447 (Admin), §§17-18)

What kit does an e-bike have to come with?

Last week I looked at the detailed kit requirements which apply when you buy a new bike. As I said then, those detailed rules don’t apply to e-bikes.

Instead, as far as I can see, there is only one kit requirement for the sale of e-bikes: they must have brakes which conform to clause 6 of British Standard 6102: Part I: 1981. (PCCUR rr. 3(1)(d), 4(b), 12(a))

I won’t go into the technical details of the relevant standard here. Whether the brakes comply is something that should appear in the documentation that comes with the bike. If in doubt, you can ask the person you’re thinking of buying it from.

This rule seems to apply to both new and second-hand sales. Selling an e-bike which doesn’t have the necessary brakes is an offence, carrying a fine of up to £1000. (PCCUR r. 12(a); RTA s. 81(5),(6); RTOA Sch 2)

And it’s not just selling the bike which can get you in trouble – it’s also an offence to offer to sell or to supply (i.e. hand over after you’ve sold) an e-bike without the correct brakes. (PCCUR r. 12)

There are exemptions in some scenarios – so you won’t commit an offence if:

  • you’re selling the bike for export. (RTA s. 81(6)(a))
  • you had reasonable grounds to believe that the e-bike wouldn’t be used on roads in Great Britain without the necessary adaptations to comply with the rules on brakes. (RTA s. 81(6)(b))

So you can sell an e-bike which (for example) doesn’t have pedal reflectors or a red rear reflector. But this doesn’t mean that it’s lawful to use the e-bike on the road without reflectors. As I’ve said, I’ll look at the rules on using e-bikes on the road in a future post.


Photo by nedrichards from here:


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