Rules of the Road

It’s got two wheels and a motor; but does the law consider it a bicycle or a motorcycle?

Depending on the engine size and power, Washington state law could consider your ride as an electric assisted bicycle, a moped, a motor-driven cycle or a motorcycle.
Depending on the engine size and power, Washington state law could consider your ride as an electric assisted bicycle, a moped, a motor-driven cycle or a motorcycle. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Question: What are the laws on driving a motorized or electric assist bike on the road? Do you need to have a license and insurance?

Answer: There are actually several different answers, depending on the power source (gas or electric) and the size of the motor. The part about electric assist bikes is the easiest to answer, so let’s start there and work our way up to gas powered bikes.

Washington state law defines an electric assisted bicycle as having two or three wheels, fully capable of operating on only human power, using an electric motor of no more than 1000 watts and a top speed of 20 mph on flat ground when using only the motor. As long as an electric assisted bike meets those requirements, it can be ridden anywhere that a regular bicycle can ride except on the sidewalk. That’s the state law; local jurisdictions can place some additional limits on where electric assisted bikes can ride. No license or insurance is needed. However, even though you don’t need a license to ride an electric assisted bicycle, anyone under the age of 16 is not allowed to ride one.

Riders on bicycles that are assisted by an internal combustion engine don’t have the same level of freedom as riders on electric assisted bicycles.

Once a bike gets a gas powered motor attached to it, a different set of laws apply. Depending on the size of the motor and the horsepower it produces, adding an internal combustion engine to a bicycle would put it in the category of either a moped (if the engine is less than 50 cubic centimeters, produces no more than two horsepower and has a top speed of 30 mph) or a motor-driven cycle (if the engine produces no more than five horsepower). A more powerful engine would qualify as a motorcycle.

If you’ve been checking my work against the law, you may have noticed that a moped could also have an electric motor. As mentioned earlier, an electric assisted bicycle has a limit on its motor size. Exceeding that limit puts it into the category of moped, motor-driven cycle or even motorcycle, depending on how much power it produces.

What’s the big deal about being categorized as a moped instead of an electric assisted bicycle? Lots actually. You can buy a small electric motor, attach it to your bike, and you’re ready to ride. You can buy a 49 cubic-centimeter motor and attach it to your bike, or even buy a bike with a 49 cubic-centimeter motor, but that doesn’t mean it’s legal to ride that bike on a public road in Washington.

A moped, in the eyes of the law, is more like a motorcycle. That means it has to be registered and licensed. In order to register a moped it has to meet federal safety standards similar to the requirements for a motorcycle. That means adding mirrors, a variety of lights, a horn and probably improving the brakes. The Washington State Patrol has a handy one page document on its website that provides the whole list of requirements necessary for a legal moped.

Once you’ve done all that, there’s one more hurdle. In order to license a moped, it needs a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). That’s different than the serial number a bicycle comes with. It is possible to register a homemade moped through the Washington State Patrol; I hope you like paperwork and inspections.

Operation of a moped requires a driver license, but it doesn’t require a special motorcycle endorsement. A moped can ride on public roads, except for limited-access freeways. Mopeds are not allowed on bike paths or recreational trails.

There is no insurance requirement for riding a moped. In Washington you don’t even need insurance on a motorcycle.

Let me rephrase that. The law doesn’t require you to have motorcycle insurance. If I were riding a motorcycle, I would definitely feel the need for insurance. Have you seen the crash statistics for motorcycles? There are 26 times more fatalities on motorcyles per mile driven compared to cars.

Getting back to the topic, a rider of an electric assisted bicycle follows the rules for a human powered bicycle, while a rider of a gas engine assisted bicycle follows the rules for a moped, which are pretty much the rules for a motorcycle, minus the motorcycle endorsement.

Fun fact: Even though the word “moped” is a portmanteau of “motor” and “pedal”, the law in Washington actually doesn’t require a moped to have any pedals.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.