E-Bike Laws: What to Know Before You Ride

E-bikes are a great way to get around, but make sure you know the law and understand the possibilities after an accident.

By , Attorney

E-bikes and e-scooters are increasingly popular options for commuting, running errands, and recreation. Unfortunately, this rise in popularity has led to a corresponding rise in serious accidents and injuries.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), 53 people were killed in e-bike accidents from 2017 to 2021, with fatalities jumping from no more than six per year from 2017-2019, to 18 in 2020 and 23 in 2021.

A study funded by National Institute of Child Health and Human Development looked at data from 2000 to 2017, and found that e-bike users were more likely to suffer internal injuries and require hospital admission than people injured in accidents involving pedal bikes.

That doesn't mean you should stay away from e-bikes, but it does mean you should have the information you need to ride safely and with confidence. This article will provide an overview of what you should know before hopping on an e-bike, and offer some tips on how to respond if you're involved in an accident.

E-Bike Laws and Rules: The Basics

Each state has its own laws for e-bikes, covering everything from safety and licensing regulations to where and how you're allowed to ride. In addition, within each state, different towns and cities can add their own requirements. If you own an e-bike, or even if you just want to rent or borrow one, it's important to learn and follow these local rules.

What Is an E-Bike, Anyway?

The first step for lawmakers in establishing rules for e-bikes is deciding what separates an e-bike from an ordinary bicycle, a moped, and a motorcycle. Nearly all states have specially defined what they mean by "e-bike." These definitions can be more complicated than you'd think. But, generally speaking, an e-bike is a regular bicycle that can use a motor to add power beyond the rider's pedaling.

Most states put an upper limit on e-bikes' speed (anywhere from 20 to 28 MPH). To enforce that rule, e-bike motors are designed to stop working once they reach that top speed. If the motor can sustain higher speeds than that, then technically it isn't an e-bike anymore and is subject to rules and laws that apply to more powerful vehicles like mopeds.

Do I Need to Wear a Helmet When I Ride an E-Bike?

It's a good idea to protect yourself by wearing a helmet when you ride an e-bike, but the rules for when you must wear a helmet vary widely by state. For example:

  • In Connecticut anyone riding an e-bike must wear a helmet.
  • In Colorado there is no helmet requirement for e-bike riders who are 18 or older. Minors can also ride some e-bikes without helmets, but are subject to more restrictive rules when it comes to e-bikes with a higher maximum speed.
  • Like many states, Ohio divides e-bikes into three categories based on maximum speed and on whether the motor can operate when the bike isn't being pedaled. Only people riding e-bikes in Category 3—with the highest maximum speed—are required to wear helmets.

Do I Need a License, Registration, or Insurance to Ride an E-Bike?

In many states you don't need a license or insurance to ride an e-bike, and the e-bike doesn't have to be registered. A lack of an insurance requirement makes sense in states that treat e-bikes more like bicycles and less like motorized vehicles such as mopeds and motorcycles. Under Florida law, for example, an e-bike is "a vehicle to the same extent as a bicycle," and e-bikes are explicitly exempted from insurance, registration, and licensing requirements.

In New Jersey, on the other hand, the requirements are different depending on how powerful the e-bike is. Low-speed electric bikes—with a maximum speed of 20 MPH—are regulated like bicycles. They don't need to be registered and you don't need a license or insurance to ride them. E-bikes with a higher top speed are classified as "motorized bicycles," and subject to licensing, registration, and insurance requirements just like motorcycles or cars.

Where and How Can I Ride an E-Bike?

Just like when you get behind the wheel of a car, when you ride an e-bike you should know the general rules of the road and also be on the lookout for signs providing additional restrictions or guidance.

It's especially important to be vigilant for signs because, while state law provides some basic rules, most states allow municipalities to modify those rules to fit local conditions.

For example, Florida law generally allows you to ride an e-bike anywhere you can ride a regular bicycle. But state law also allows cities and towns to impose additional restrictions. That's why the Town of Palm Beach, citing safety concerns, is allowed to ban e-bikes on a trail that's open to regular bicycles.

In some states it's also important to know how the rules apply to the specific kind of e-bike you're riding. In California, for example, the default rule is that e-bikes with lower maximum speeds are allowed to operate on bike paths and in bike lanes. But more powerful e-bikes are only allowed in bike paths or lanes if local law specifically permits it.

These local requirements are part of the reason it's vital to familiarize yourself with the rules for e-bikes and also remain alert while you're riding.

How Can I Make Sure I'm Compensated If I'm in an E-Bike Accident?

Even if you're careful and follow all of the rules while riding an e-bike, you might still get unlucky and be involved in an accident. Any accident is shocking and disruptive. But you can put yourself in the best position to recover physically and financially if you understand some key points about liability and insurance coverage.

Being liable for an accident means being responsible for causing it, and therefore responsible for the resulting financial and medical costs. An e-bike accident can raise questions about who's on the hook in this regard.

How Do You Determine Legal Liability for an E-Bike Accident?

It's important to understand how state and local laws for e-bikes can affect your legal liability if there's an accident. If you ignore or break a law, and are then injured in a way that could have been prevented had you followed the rules, many states will automatically find you negligent.

That could mean you won't be able to collect money in a lawsuit even if there are good arguments that someone else—someone who hit you with their car, for example—also has significant responsibility for the accident. It may also mean you'll be assigned some of the blame even if the accident was mostly someone else's fault, and receive a smaller settlement or court award as a result.

For example, let's say you ride an e-bike onto a bicycle path that has a sign posted prohibiting electric bicycles. You're riding cautiously, but end up in a crash with someone riding their regular bicycle recklessly on the wrong side of the path.

Ordinarily you'd have a good argument that the accident is entirely the other rider's fault. But, depending on your state's negligence rules, your failure to obey local laws about where to ride your e-bike might leave you partially or completely responsible for damage and injuries suffered by both you and the other rider.

If you think that outcome seems unfair, some states agree. Virginia, for example, requires e-bike riders to wear helmets, but also specifies that not wearing a helmet doesn't make a rider negligent or reduce the amount of damages they might recover in a lawsuit if they're injured.

Of course, helmet laws highlight the importance of following safety rules and traffic laws for your own protection and the protection of others—it's much better to avoid an injury entirely than to win a legal argument over compensation for your medical bills.

How Can Insurance Help If You're in an E-Bike Accident?

As we noted above, many states don't require e-bike owners or riders to have insurance. So, if you (as a driver, pedestrian, or bicyclist) are injured in an accident with an e-bike rider, you'll probably have to rely on your own health insurance to pay for any necessary medical treatment.

If you have certain kinds of car insurance—like personal injury protection / medical payments coverage—that might also be an option. But to get compensation for the full spectrum of your accident-related losses (including "pain and suffering") you'll probably need to file a personal injury lawsuit against the e-bike rider and hope they have enough assets to either settle with you or pay any court judgment in your favor.

On the flip side, as a rider, the possibility that you might be sued in the wake of an accident is one reason it makes sense to look for e-bike insurance coverage. Insurance could also help you cover the cost if your e-bike is damaged or destroyed in an accident.

E-bike insurance isn't as common as auto insurance, but you still have options. You might be able to find an e-bike-specific policy, or to get coverage through your rental or homeowners' insurance. But it's crucial to make sure you read any policy closely so you understand exactly what it will cover.

What Happens If I Get in an Accident on a Rented E-Bike?

The forms you sign (or click through) when you rent an e-bike include an agreement that the rental company can't be held responsible if there's an accident.

This kind of agreement doesn't mean it's impossible to recover money from the rental company if you get into an accident as the result of a serious malfunction with their equipment. (In that situation, the rental company, the manufacturer, or both might be liable.) But it does mean you should generally assume that you'll have to handle the aftermath of an accident without any financial help from the e-bike rental service.

What Happens If My E-Bike Malfunctions?

Whether you own an e-bike or are riding a rental, you're taking on some expected risks that can't be blamed on the manufacturer—for example, the risk that you might be hit by a careless driver or that you might lose your balance and fall.

But that doesn't mean e-bike manufacturers are never responsible for injuries caused by their products. You might have a product liability claim if you're injured as a result of a defect in an e-bike.

For example, a defective e-bike battery can cause a fire or even an explosion. According to the National Fire Protection Association, in 2022 alone the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) investigated 130 fires caused by e-bike batteries. These fires caused five deaths and dozens of injuries.

If you were injured or your property was damaged in an e-bike fire, you'd have good reason to seek compensation from the manufacturer. Of course, you're better off avoiding a fire in the first place. You can reduce the risk by following tips from the National Fire Protection Association and this advice from Consumer Reports and FDNY.

Learn More About E-Bike Law and Safety

If you've been injured in an e-bike accident—whether on the road or because of a defect with the product—you might be wondering about your legal options. You can find out more about how to make a personal injury claim and get more information about whether a product liability claim might make sense. You can also use the features on this page to get in touch with an attorney in your area and discuss your situation in more detail.

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