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Jetson E-bike
Jetson E-bike

Time to Implement the 30 Kilogram Rule

Current U.S. law regarding e-bikes contains a potentially dangerous shortcoming that it's time Congress address before the problem gets out of hand.

Permit me ask you a simple question? What would you call the above vehicle?

To my eye it looks sort of like a motor scooter, only maybe not as heavy. Clearly it's electric since I see no gasoline engine or exhaust pipe. Those of us old enough to remember the advent of the Honda Cub half a century ago, might be tempted to call it a moped.

What I wouldn't call it is a 'bicycle.'

Yet, according to US code, the Jetson E-Bike and similar vehicles are considered 'bicycles' and fall under the oversight of the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and not the Department of Transportation.

As a 'bicycle', the owner isn't required to license it or hold any type of driving permit in order to operate it.

This same legal ambiguity has led to their explosive proliferation in China where they are also - for the time being - considered 'bicycles.' Somewhat disparagingly called 'e-donkeys' in China, they have become the ban of pedestrians, normal cyclists and motorists alike. By their literal tens of millions, they provide daily transport for urban commuters and rural riders alike.

The problem isn't their speed. Most don't travel any faster than a normal bicycle, The Jetson has a regulated top speed of 20 mph. It certainly isn't that they are noisy or polluting. They are quiet and being electric, they have not local emissions.

The problem is their weight.

Consider. A low-cost consumer-grade bicycle weighs around 20-30 pounds (9-13 kg). A true electric-assist bicycle can weigh between 35-55 pounds (15-25kg), depending on type of battery: heavy lead or light lithium.

The Jetson weighs 125 pounds (56 kg): twice-to-three times the weight of 'bicycle.'

It's considered a 'bicycle' because it has pedals, a motor of less than 750 watts, and a top speed of 20 mph. In its wisdom, Congress left weight out of the equation, and it's the weight, or more scientifically, the mass of the machine that is the problem.

In a collision between a Jetson and a pedestrian, for example, the combination of the speed and mass could prove fatal, possibly to both, but certainly to the pedestrian. The same would apply to crashes with bicycle riders and electric-assisted bikes.

Of course, from the perspective of the Jetson rider, he or she would much rather be riding in bike lanes and on bike paths than mingling with heavier and faster motor vehicles, but therein lies the problem. Where does this class of vehicle belong?

Sidewalks? Bike lanes? Urban streets? Suburban roads?

From both a legal and a practical perspective, bicycles are largely entitled to be ridden pretty much anywhere they want, with the possible exception of sidewalks based on local code. There's long been a debate within the cycling community that bicycles should enjoy the same access to roads as an motorized vehicle and ridden accordingly. Theoretically, the same would apply to Jetson-class e-bikes. Of course, most occasional bicycle riders would prefer the relative safety of dedicated lanes and paths to sharing the road with car crazies. Presumably, so would your teenage daughter or her Boomer grandparents.

But just as the federal government set rules regarding the types of vehicles it allows on our Interstate highways, it needs to do the same with these types of vehicles and the determining factor should be their weight.

I propose that in addition to pedals and motor size, that the CPSC regulation needs to be amended to include weight as a key criteria for what defines a 'bicycle.' For reference, I suggest it be 30 kg or approximately 66 pounds. Below that number, it's considered a bicycle. Above that, it's a motor vehicle and falls under the oversight of the Department of Transportation.

Now the federal government can only regulate what happens on roads it helps fund, so it will be up to the states and local administrations to figure out where these vehicles fit in the transportation mix, but having some guidance at the national level should help provide much needed clarity to manufacturers, retailers and owners of this class of vehicle.

If Congress doesn't act, we may someday find ourselves in the same bind that the Chinese government now finds itself: having to pass laws that either bans e-bikes entirely or tries to better define what is a bicycle and what is a moped.

Posted By: Bill Moore [27-Aug-2013]