E-Bike Classes and U.S. Laws

Man riding an Aventon Soltera single speed

Except for the National Parks Service, the federal government does not regulate the use of e-bikes in the US. That’s done at the state level. However, things are changing thanks to the support of the leisure cycling lobby group People for Bikes.

Currently, 36 states observe the most common e-bike classification model – the three-class e-bike system. Under the three-class e-bike system, any bike with up to 750 Watts of power from the motor is classed as follows:

three class system diagram
  • Class 1

    Electric bikes with motors that can only be ridden with a pedal assist system (PAS) and the motor cuts out at 20 mph.

  • Class 2

    Electric bikes with a throttle and PAS where the motor also cuts out at 20 mph.

  • Class 3

    Electric bikes with a PAS only but receive motor assistance up to 28 mph.

  • Classless

    Other e-bikes that don’t fall under any class in the system (for example, those without pedals, those with a throttle that can assist up to 28 mph, and those with motors over 750W)

There’s still a bit more to it though. So, let’s take a deeper dive into the way this works and which may be right for you

Can You Ride an E-Bike Without a License?

In the majority of US states, e-bikes are defined as traditional bicycles and not as motorcycles and mopeds. That means you can ride an e-bike without a license. 

As with bicycles, the majority of states do not require you to have insurance or to register the bike with the state department of motor vehicles. There are exceptions to this, however, as we will discuss in the next section.

Electric Bike Classes 1, 2, and 3 — Laws & Regulations

According to People for Bikes, the 36 states that currently observe the three-class e-bike system are:

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming.

Likely, more states will eventually follow suit as e-bikes become an ever more popular form of transportation. 

People for Bikes is leading the way in pressing for a similar set of regulations on e-bikes across the US. In a policy document it suggests that Class 1 and 2 e-bikes should be able to go anywhere a traditional bike is allowed thanks to their speeds being similar. 

According to the same policy document, Class 3 speed pedelecs may be restricted from multi-use paths such as boardwalks. They also may further be restricted to bike-only lanes and those roadways with other motorized vehicles. Additionally, there may be minimum age regulations and rules over wearing a helmet. 

It is interesting that in none of these policy suggestions, it is recommended that an e-bike should be registered or that the rider should be licensed and insured. Even if your state has adopted these policies, it may make sense to have third-party liability insurance in case you get into an accident and face expensive court action.

Understanding the Three Electric Bicycle Classes

To fully understand the three-class system, you must have a basic understanding of how e-bikes work.

class 1 e-bike card

Class 1 Electric Bikes

On a Class 1 e-bike, there will be a motor on one of the wheels (a hub motor) or in the crank area (a mid-drive motor). Sensors around the crank will tell a computer (the controller) that the rider is pedaling and it will tell the motor to produce power. This is known as a pedal assist system (PAS).

The power system of Class 1 electric bikes provides assistance up to 20 mph. Once that speed is reached, the motor will not provide any more push.

Most major international cycling brands make Class 1 e-bikes, including Giant, Specialized, Raleigh, and Trek.

class 2 e-bike card

Class 2 Electric Bikes

Class 2 electric bikes have a PAS system as well as a throttle. The throttle is a button, lever, or half-twist grip throttle like a motorbike. When you operate the throttle, you can stop pedaling and, via the controller, it will tell the motor to produce power.

Like Class 1 e-bikes, Class 2 electric bikes have a maximum speed of 20 mph. The motor won’t assist above that speed.

Many pure e-bike manufacturers like Rad Power Bikes, Himiway, and Aventon have throttles on their machines.

class 3 e-bike card

Class 3 Electric Bikes

These are PAS-only electric bikes that have a speed limiter that makes the motor cut out at 28 mph rather than 20 mph like on Class 1 e-bikes. Class 3 e-bikes DO NOT have throttles. In addition, they must have a speedometer, unlike other electric bikes.

Out of Class Electric Bikes

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, any device that does not fit under these classifications “is not considered a low-speed electric bicycle that would be regulated as a bicycle.”

Some e-bike manufacturers will claim that their machines fall into one or even two of the three e-bike classes. However, many of these e-bikes can be considered out of class because they don’t technically meet any of the class specifications.

If you do buy one of these e-bikes, check your local regulations to ensure you don’t need to register your bike as a moped or meet other requirements. Some locations place restrictions on how fast a bike can go under throttle power before they are no longer considered an e-bike.

M-Class Bikes

There are also electric motorcycles that lack pedals and don’t even pretend to be bicycles. Major electric motorcycle startup Zero Motorcycles makes machines that will go over 100 mph and ride in a similar way to their gasoline-powered rivals.

Such motorcycles will be subject to the same laws as gasoline-powered motorcycles, including registration, taxation, licensing, and insurance requirements.

States Not Observing the Three-class System

As often happens in the US, states will go their own way when enacting traffic laws and vehicle regulations. As the electric bike world has gone mainstream, there has been a range of different ways e-biking has been regulated.

For your peace of mind, it pays to check what the state law is regarding e-bikes where you live. No one likes paying fines or even being taken to court, especially if it is down to a lack of knowledge on their part.

A Quick Note

Keep in mind that while these are state-level laws, many cities and towns may have different restrictions, regulations, and rules for e-bikes and e-bike riders. Be sure to check your city’s laws before you ride.

Here’s a breakdown of how those individual states regulate e-bikes:

Alaska defines e-bikes as “motor-driven cycles,” requires a license to ride them and the minimum age is 14. Teens can get an instruction permit at age 14 in Alaska to ride legally.

For e-bikes, Alaska does not currently require registration, insurance, or a helmet to ride. Also, e-bikes are NOT allowed on public sidewalks and bike trails.

In Hawaii, e-bikes are allowed everywhere a regular bike is allowed, including on bike paths. However, they must be registered ($30) by an adult at a city hall satellite location or at the state business registration location. There are no other restrictions.

In the state of Kentucky, e-bike riders must follow the same rules of the road as regular bicycles. Otherwise, there are no e-bike-specific rules or regulations, and no restrictions.

In Massachusetts, e-bikes are defined as “motorized bicycles” if they can go 25 mph at most (that would be a Class 3 bike). The state requires e-bike riders to have a license and registration, but does not require insurance.

Bike helmet use is required by law and e-bike riders must be 16 or older. E-bike riders must stay off public sidewalks and bike paths.

In Montana, an e-bike is defined as an “electrically assisted bicycle” with a top motorized speed of 20 mph (Class 2 bikes). Otherwise, there is no regulation beyond that.

There is no legal requirement for a license, registration, or insurance, and no age limit or helmet law. E-bikes can use bike paths and sidewalks.

E-bikes are defined in Nebraska as “electric assisted bicycles,” so long as the motor is under 750 Watts and the e-bike has a maximum motorized speed of 20 mph with fully operable pedals. There are no age limits or helmet requirements.

E-bikes are allowed on bike paths and sidewalks.

New Mexico
New Mexico defines e-bikes as “mopeds” and riders must be 15 or older, have a license/permit, register the e-bike, and carry insurance. They are not allowed on sidewalks and may be restricted from certain paths or trails.

North Carolina
E-bikes are defined as “electric assisted bicycles” and must have pedals, an electric motor under 750 Watts, and a maximum speed of 20mph. The minimum age is 16 and helmets, registration, insurance, or a license are not required.

Basically, e-bikes can be ridden wherever regular bicycles are allowed.

In Oregon, e-bikes are classified as “electric assisted bicycles,” and are regulated like bicycles but with a maximum power output of 1,000 Watts. They must have pedals, with a top motorized speed of 20 mph.

E-bikes can use bike paths but not sidewalks, and a rider must be 16 or older. There are no registration, insurance, helmet, or license requirements.

E-bikes are defined as “pedalcycles with electric assist,” with a motor under 750 Watts. They must have pedals, go 20 mph maximum on a level surface, and weigh under 100 pounds.

Riders must be 16 or older and there are no license, insurance, helmet, or registration requirements.

Rhode Island
E-bikes are defined as “electric motorized bicycles” with a power output of less than 1,491w (which equates to 2 horsepower), and a maximum speed of 25 mph under power. They do not need to be registered but have to follow road laws as they apply to “vehicles,” but not “motor vehicles.”

There does not appear to be an age limit, nor does there appear to be documentation or helmet requirements.

South Carolina
E-bikes with motors that have a power output under 750 watts are exempt from the definition of “moped” in South Carolina and do not require a license or registration. There do not appear to be any state-level restrictions or regulations around age, helmets, or bike path use, but local laws may be different from city to city.

Washington, D.C.
An e-bike is defined as a “motorized bicycle” in D.C. and must have operable pedals, and a combined human and motor power-assisted maximum speed of 20 mph. The minimum rider age is 16 and no registration or insurance is required to ride.

There is no helmet requirement, either.

Helmet, Age, and Other Regulations

Though there is a unified definition and classification of electric bikes across the majority of US states, there are different ways in which the states regulate them individually. Here are a few potential regulations you should be aware of.

Head Protection

Broadly, 25 states have no head protection regulation for e-bikes. Twenty-two states and Washington DC however do. 

Regarding Class 3 electric bikes, eight states require helmets regardless of age. These are California, Georgia, Louisiana, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia Eight other states require head protection for younger riders under 21 or under 18. 

Helmets must be worn by younger riders of all e-bikes in five states, and in Connecticut, all e-bike users and passengers must wear head protection at all times.  E-bike users or passengers under 14 must wear a helmet in New York and under 16 in Florida, Maine and Maryland. If the rider or passenger is under 18 in Delaware they must also wear one.

Multi-Use Paths

People for Bikes suggest that Class 1 and Class 2 e-bikes can go anywhere that traditional bikes can go. This is borne out in California, where Class 1 and 2 e-bikes are allowed to use state park trails where Class 3 e-bikes cannot.

However, in Washington State, Class 3 e-bikes are allowed to go wherever traditional bikes can go in state parks.

Thanks to the regulations being different depending on where you go, always check before planning a trip with your e-bike to ensure you will conform to local laws.

A Note on National Parks

Since July 2022, electric bike users have been able to ride in National Parks. As with the 37 states, the National Park Service recognizes the three-class e-bike system. This has opened up large tracts of land to e-bike users and is a big step forward.

The class system enables the NPS to delegate authority to individual park superintendents who are allowed under the regulation to dictate what classes of e-bikes can go where. Many will allow Class 1 and 2 e-bikes to go where traditional bikes are allowed, but many choose to restrict Class 3 e-bikes due to their higher speeds.

As with state parks, it, therefore, makes sense for you to check on the website of the national park you’re planning to visit ahead of time to ensure that your bike conforms to regulations.

Could E-Bike Regulations Be Better?

Though there are advantages to our federal system of state lawmaking, it can be a pain for individual users! 

If you visit any country in the European Union, by comparison, you will be subject to almost identical regulations on electric bikes. No e-bike can go faster than 15.5 mph and throttles are banned. This might be restrictive compared to our own rules, but at least in 27 countries, you know exactly where you stand due to there being largely only one law. 

Here, the laws on e-bikes are uneven and essentially a mess. A rider from Washington State with a Class 3 bike can ride wherever traditional bicycles can be ridden in state parks. But if they were to head south to California on a day trip, they would not be able to ride their Class 3 bike in state parks. Fly your e-bike to Alaska and you will likely have to register it, insure it, and prove you have a license to ride it!

Pay Attention to Changes in Regulations

The class system is a big step forward as it provides riders with at least some certainty as to what they will be allowed to ride where. 

Gradually, more and more states are adopting the class system. We may see a time in the next decade when all e-bike riders are generally treated the same, regardless of which state they are riding in. 

That time may not be too far off, especially with the National Parks Service recently signaling that the class system appeals to the federal government. 

Until that day comes, pay close attention to changes in your state’s regulations and the regulations of any state you may decide to ride in. You could also consider joining or supporting advocacy organizations to help make the e-bike class system more widely accepted.  

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