Photo by Earthworm on Flickr.

Hoping to encourage the sale and use of small motorized bicycles, Maryland’s House of Delegates passed a bill allowing anyone to drive some mopeds anywhere a bicycle is allowed, including streets, trails and sidewalks. But did lawmakers understand what this bill will mean?

If it becomes law, someone could operate even a one-horsepower electric vehicle capable of driving up to 20 mph on trails or many sidewalks in the state, and children could drive one on the highway.

House Bill 205 would give Maryland one of the least restrictive electric bicycle laws in the United States. Maryland currently allows mopeds on streets, but not on trails or sidewalks. As with all motor vehicles, moped drivers must have a license and liability insurance. The bill would dispense with all of these restrictions for mopeds with an electric motor that cuts off when traveling faster than 20 mph.

Like Europe (but not most other states), Maryland would impose no minimum age, require neither a driver’s license nor insurance, and allow them on trails and some sidewalks. But unlike Europe, these privileges associated with bicycles would apply for electric bikes with as much as one horsepower.

What is a moped?

Maryland law treats mopeds as a hybrid between motor vehicle and human-powered vehicles. Yet there is a continuum from very small electric motors mainly used to help people up hills, to 1.5 horsepower motors for a vehicle which a human would only propel if it runs out of power. The law must draw a line to define the vehicles that require insurance and a drivers license, from those that require neither and will be allowed to mix with pedestrians on trails and sidewalks.

Americans are still deciding where to draw that line. “I’ve seen folks try to set it based on size, speed, and horsepower, but there’s always a new innovation that makes it unworkable,” says a local bicycling advocate. “I want motorized assistance to be available to people, but I don’t want people riding primarily motorized vehicles at unsafe speeds on trails.” Michael Jackson, a bicycle expert with the Maryland Department of Transportation, says the same standards should apply whether the motor is powered by fuel or electricity.

The European Union draws the line at 250 watts or 1/3 horsepower, which is roughly the amount of power a cyclist can sustain for a few minutes. The power must gradually diminish with speed, and cut off completely at 15 mph. So if the motor is no stronger than a human being (albeit one who does not get tired), the vehicle can be treated as human-powered.

In the United States, the legal patchwork is more confusing, largely because the federal government regulates manufacturing while individual states regulate where and by whom they can be driven. The federal definition of electric bikes is essentially a moped with an electric motor less than 1 horsepower which cuts off at 20 mph.

States can draw the line elsewhere for trails and driver’s licenses, but so far they have not. Instead, most states lump both heavy and light electric bikes together, and impose more restrictions than for bicycles but fewer than for motor vehicles. About half the states require a driver’s license. Most states have a minimum age and prohibit them on trails and sidewalks. 

Steve Carr of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources points out that park managers can issue rules more restrictive than state law: “We will not allow motorized vehicles on our trails, other than motorized wheelchairs.”

Did lawmakers understand the bill?

The House of Delegates may not have realized what it was doing. The bill’s sponsor, Allegany County Delegate Kevin Kelly, and his witnesses only told the Environmental Matters Committee (MP3, 4.2 MB) that the bill was needed to make state law conform to federal law. But Kelly didn’t explain that the federal law deals with consumer protection while the state law addresses who can drive the vehicles, and where.

The bill’s only co-sponsor from the Washington area is Delegate Barbara Frush (D-College Park). Reached by phone, her staff could not determine whether she realized what the bill would do.

House Bill 205 does not explicitly declare that children can drive some mopeds on the street. Nor does it say that some mopeds will be allowed on trails or sidewalks. But it allows children to drive mopeds, and for mopeds to go on trails or sidewalks, by changing the definition of a bicycle.

The universally understood definition of bicycle is a two-wheeled vehicle propelled by human power, and the law essentially uses that definition today. Under the new law, the definition of a bicycle will be a two-wheeled vehicle propelled either by human power or by an electric motor with less than one horsepower.

Whether allowing children to drive mopeds on highways was intended or not, it illustrates the problem of accomplishing legislative goals by revising the definition of a commonly understood word like “bicycle” to mean something else. The more straightforward approach would be to define the new class of vehicle and explicitly define its rights and duties.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee has scheduled a hearing on the bill for March 18. The Committee will also consider House Bill 250, which changes the definition of bicycles to include all mopeds.

Jim Titus lived aboard a 75-foot coast guard cutter at Buzzards Point boatyard in southwest Washington until he was 2. Since then he has lived in Prince George’s County, going to school in Ft. Washington, Accokeek, and College Park before moving to Glenn Dale. He represents Prince George’s on the state of Maryland’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and is on the board of directors of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Professionally, he works for a federal agency, which asks not to be identified.