Explainer: Legal status of bicycles, e-bikes and scooters

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: In the last few weeks there’s been confusion in the media over the legal status of e-bicycles and e-scooters. To clear things up, here’s a quick explainer:

Bicycles

Bicycles are road legal as long as fulfil basic standards such as brakes, lights in the hours of darkness, and a bell (except bicycles adapted for racing, which don’t need a bell).

Bicycles are not covered by the legal requirements for a driver’s licence, insurance, or Motor Tax (the clue is in the name) because bicycles are powered by humans and the potential for a person on a bicycle to cause damage is closer to that of a person walking or running than someone driving.

If you’re calling for these things to be a legal requirement for cycling, you might as well be calling for wheelbarrows to be taxed, licensed and insured.

This article would be too long to explain in full, but: (1) motor tax is based on emission and bicycles are closer to zero emissions than any mass-made vehicle and it’s in the public interest to having more people cycling for health, environmental and economic reasons, so, taxing cycling makes no sense; (2) if you think bicycles should require a driver’s licence to use, you’re fooling yourself into thinking a bicycle is more dangerous than it is and/or that motoring isn’t as dangerous as it is; and (3) the nearest thing in an EU country to cycling insurances is personal liability insurance — but this if far from just about cycling and it also is not mandatory.

Electric bicycles

Electric bicycles or e-bikes — technically called pedelecs — are pedal-assisted bicycle. This basically means the rider has to pedal for the bicycle to move (unless it’s going downhill etc) and the motor stops helping when the bicycle reaches 25km/h.

Decades ago, most counties around the world legislated for electric bicycles as they recognised that e-bikes give the benefits of bicycles with a little help from the motor — the help of the motor allows enables more people to cycle by making it easier to cycle in hilly areas, in strong wind, longer distances or with children or extra cargo.

A mix of the pedal-assisted nature of the bikes, the limited speed, and the benefits is key why electric bicycles are legally viewed as no different to normal bicycles. This is prescribed by EU law, so, Ireland doesn’t have a choice on this.

There’s also a requirement that the motor’s power output is no more than 250W — this likely needs to be revised, especially to help with the potential for cargo bicycles to carry large amounts.

Speed e-bikes

Speed e-bikes or s-pedelecs are like normal e-bikes but the limited on the motor is higher — up to 45km/h. These have different rules around Europe, including the need for registration plates and helmets.

In Ireland, a s-pedelecs is effectively classed as a motorbike and using one on public roads requires a driver’s license, insurance, motor tax, motorcycle helmets etc.

Without meeting the legal requirements, s-pedelecs are illegal to use on Irish roads.

It’s practically hard get a registration plate for a s-pedelec, and you need that to tact it and get insurance. There’s a story that one persistent person managing it, but that’s not fully confirmed.

E-scooters

While some e-scooters advocates (admirably) look for the law to be changed, there is no grey area as often claim.

There’s misunderstanding around this — the law works exactly how it’s design to. It’s not outdated, it’s a catch-all law by design. Anything with a motor which is not exempted — examples of what is exempted includes e-bikes as described above, electric wheelchairs, etc.

As an aside: Those looking to make e-scooters legal would be best placed to add different legal category of vehicle — e-scooters are not bicycles, so, piggybacking on the law around bicycles is not a good idea.

E-scooters with kick start

Still not legal without a license, motor tax, etc. Motorbikes which have a kickstart, so, it’s unclear why anybody thinks this would apply to ebikes or e-scooters.

E-scooters which you have to push with your foot

Again: Still not legal without a license, motor tax, etc. The exception for pedalling is for bicycles.

I am editor of IrishCycle.com and have reported on and commented on cycling in Ireland for over a decade. My background is in journalism -- I have a BA in Journalism from DCU and HDip in Print Journalism from BCFE. I wrote about cycling for national newspapers, and then started CyclingInDublin.com for overflow stories. Later the website was re-branded to reflect a more national focus.

2 Comments

  1. you will find that electric mobility devices such as wheelchairs are actually exempted under rsa rules otherwise a very good concise and accurate article

  2. Cian: For completeness, will you add “motorised bicycles” (those hideous motorised contraption that have appeared) and highlight their illegality. :)

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