Avoiding (Legal) Potholes on Your E-Bike

It’s that time of year again. The time when hard-core cyclists say to themselves, “Do I really have to share the bike lane with those scooter-like things?” Like them or not, e-bikes are back on the roads after their annual winter migration to storage. If last year was any indication, the number of e-bikes on the road this spring can be expected to increase yet again.

While the year-round cycling purist may look over the dropped handlebars of his retro fixed-gear bicycle at the e-biker with disdain, e-bikes look like they are here to stay. E-bikes represent a viable commuting option for “suits” who can’t show up to work sweaty and who, unlike me, don’t have the luxury of keeping a wardrobe at the office. They are also a more feasible option for people with physical limitations or who just need a bit of help on steep hills.

To encourage the use of e-bikes, the government allows riders to operate them without a driver’s licence and without the need to purchase insurance. For people who want a cheap, green, and non-sweaty mode of travel there aren’t any apparent drawbacks to using an e-bike – unless your e-bike is not really an e-bike. How do you know if what you are riding is in fact an e-bike? The government certainly hasn’t made it easy. Finding the complete definition means you have to look at the provincial Highway Traffic Act and the federal Motor Vehicle Safety Regulations. That’s a pretty heavy onus to place on someone who just wants to ride a bike with a bit of a power boost.

More importantly, why should you care whether your e-bike fits the definition? As long as you’re riding a machine that suits your needs, who cares if it’s technically an “e-bike” or not, right? Wrong. If your machine turns out not to be an e-bike, you could be operating a motor vehicle without insurance. And the consequences of operating a motor vehicle without insurance are significant.

The first obvious consequence of riding a motor vehicle insurance is a ticket under the Highway Traffic Act or the Compulsory Automobile Insurance Act. This could lead to substantial penalties. But a ticket and its accompanying penalty pales in comparison to what could happen if you are involved in a collision while operating an uninsured motor vehicle. Most significantly, you lose the right to sue. You might think that you aren’t looking to get rich off a lawsuit. But, suing for injuries in Ontario is not about getting rich. If you are severely injured, you could be looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars in health care expenses that are not covered by OHIP. You might also be unable to continue working, or only be able to work in a part-time or reduced capacity – for the rest of your career. If you lose the right to sue, you alone will bear the responsibility for these losses. Even if the driver of the other vehicle is 100% at fault.

That’s why it is so important to know what an e-bike is. Here are the key points you need to know to ensure that what you are riding is really an e-bike:

•It cannot be capable of going faster than 32 km an hour on level ground;
•It must have operable pedals affixed to it;
•You must be able to operate it “solely by muscular power”;
•The power output of the motor must be 500W or less; and
•It must have a label stating (in both official languages) that the vehicle is a power-assisted bicycle.
Take a look around the streets of Toronto and you will see many bikes that match this description, with the exception of the pedals. Because so many e-bike users never actually use pedals to operate the e-bike, they remove the pedals and store them under their seats. If you are considering doing this, don’t. The moment you remove your pedals, they are inoperable. That means that you are no longer riding an e-bike. You’re just operating a motor vehicle without insurance.

There are good arguments for removing the pedal requirement from the definition of an e-bike altogether. If the goal is to encourage people to use small, green vehicles, why should it matter if they have pedals? It’s not as if you are ever required to actually use the pedals on your e-bike. But regardless of the validity of arguments for changing the definition, the fact is that the law as it stands requires pedals. So, until the legislation is changed, keep those pedals on your e-bike. That way, I can avoid painful discussions with prospective clients who have lost their right to obtain badly-needed compensation for health care expenses and lost income. And riders of e-bikes and pedal-powered bikes can turn their attention back to the endless debate about whether e-bikes belong in bike lanes with the fixies.

Patrick Brown


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