GETTING LEGAL: Sharing the Road with E-bikes: What You Need to Know

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GETTING LEGAL: Sharing the Road with E-bikes: What You Need to Know

Sharing the Road with E-bikes:  What You Need to Know

Is an e-bike considered a motor vehicle? How does the law define an e-bike? Do I need to carry insurance or other documentation when I drive one? When riding along College Street in Toronto, you may have pondered one of these questions. Whether you own an e-bike or share the road with one, it is important to understand the rules for operating e-bikes and how they are classified under various laws in Ontario.

Who is eligible to drive e-bikes and where?

According to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation:

  • You DO need to:
    • be 16 or older
    • wear an approved bicycle or motorcycle helmet
    • keep your e-bike in good working order
  • You DO NOT need a driver’s licence, vehicle permit or licence plate to ride an e-bike
  • You DO need to follow the same rules of the road as regular cyclists
  • You CAN ride your e-bike on most roads and highways where conventional bikes are permitted, with some exceptions
  • You CANNOT ride your e-bike:
    • on certain provincial controlled access highways, such as the 400 series, the Queen Elizabeth Way, the Queensway in Ottawa or the Kitchener-Waterloo Expressway
    • on municipal roads, including sidewalks, where bicycles are banned under municipal by-laws
    • on municipal roads, sidewalks, bike paths, bike trails or bike lanes where e-bikes are prohibited

How does Ontario law classify e-bikes?

Understanding legal liabilities and requirements for e-bike riders can be tricky. Are they motor-vehicles or are they bicycles? Riders need to know the consequences of driving an e-bike and how the law treats e-biker users. To help illustrate the treatment of e-bikes under different provincial and federal statues, let us examine two cases in Ontario involving the same individual, Ricky Pizzacalla.

Mr. Pizzacalla, an e-bike operator, had the unique experience of standing in front of two separate judges for legal infractions involving his use of an e-bike. Each judge viewed e-bikes quite differently in terms of how they should be classified, thus creating differing levels of violation under provincial and federal law. In one scenario, Mr. Pizzacalla was found innocent of violations related to the Compulsory Automobile Insurance Act and Highway Traffic Act. In a second scenario he was found guilty of violating the Canadian Criminal Code while operating his e-bike on the road. Let’s take a look at the details….

Legal Review under the Compulsory Automobile Act and Highway Traffic Act:

In 2010, Mr. Pizzacalla was stopped by an officer while operating his e-bike and charged with violating section 2 of the Compulsory Automobile Insurance Act and section 7 of the Highway Traffic Act (failing to have the appropriate items required for a motor vehicle: licence plate, registration and insurance). However, in this case, Justice Dudar ruled that in the context of the Highway Traffic Act,  e-bikes or power-assisted bicycles are not considered motor vehicles and thus do not have the requirements of motorized vehicles. Justice Dudar determined that because the vehicle in question had pedals that were attachable and that the bike could be propelled by muscular power, this defined the e-bike as a power assisted vehicle and not a motor vehicle.

The prosecution tried to argue that because the pedals were not attached at the time the operator was stopped by police, the vehicle was most certainly a motor-assisted bicycle and not a power-assisted bicycle. The judge disagreed. Justice Dudar held that just because the petals were not attached to the e-bike in this instance, did not automatically define the vehicle as a motor-assisted vehicle. The bicycle could be equipped with pedals, and just because it was not in this instance, as the operator was stopped, it did not preclude the bicycle from being a power-assisted vehicle.

Therefore, the good news for e-bike owners is that they are free from the onerous requirements of motor vehicle owners under the Compulsory Automobile Insurance Act and Highway Traffic Act. Under these acts, there are no requirements for a licence plate, registration or insurance.  However, they should make sure that the pedals are attached.

Legal Review under the Criminal Code of Canada:

How an e-bike is defined under the Criminal Code of Canada is a different story. In 2011, Mr. Pizzacalla was charged with violating his probation by driving a motor vehicle. He had been on a three-year probation period due to an impaired driving charge. The probation violation occurred when Mr. Pizzacalla was stopped by police for driving an e-bike.  During the criminal proceedings, Justice Nadel concluded that, under the Criminal Code of Canada, an e-bike is, in fact, a motor vehicle. Justice Nadel held that the pedals had to have been affixed at the time of use, not merely being capable of being attached and operable.  He also held that the e-bike the defendant was operating was incapable of being propelled solely by muscular power.

Therefore, e-bike operators must be aware that they could be breaking the law by driving an e-bike when prohibited from operating a motor vehicle.  They could also be charged with impaired driving under the Criminal Code.

What to take away as an e-bike operator or cyclist sharing the road with an e-bike?

As it stands now, the law is fairly lax on the regulation of e-bikes in Ontario and the documentation required to operate one on the road.  However, e-bike riders are required to drive safely and can face punishment if they do not.

Note: Singer Kwinter will be contributing a few posts to BikingToronto in June in honour of Brain Injury Awareness Month.  This post originally appeared on Biking Toronto on  June 21, 2016.