E-bikes are really motorcycles if they go faster than 28 mph

Q: What are the rules about electric bikes and electric scooters? We have them riding down the roads and sidewalks and now some of them are doing 45 mph. Do riders need a motorcycle endorsement and vehicle registration? What about safety equipment?

A: An electric bike that can go 45 mph is a fictional vehicle. At least according to law. Here’s what I mean: Washington law classifies electric bikes in three categories. Class 3 (the fastest category) is limited to a top speed of 28 mph. Any two-wheeled vehicle that is capable of speeds greater than 28 mph is not an electric bike (by law).

What is it then? It’s probably a motorcycle. Other than the listed exceptions in the law, which include power wheelchairs, foot scooters, mopeds (defined as having a top speed of 30 mph), and electric bikes, if it’s got two or three wheels and is powered by a motor, it’s a motorcycle. The people riding around on these speedy bikes likely don’t realize the potential consequences of their actions. Beyond the risks of riding at real motorcycle speeds without the training and verification of the skills required to do so, it’s also illegal.

Let’s walk through all the potential violations:

•Driving an unregistered vehicle on the road

•Riding a motorcycle without a motorcycle endorsement

•Riding a motorcycle without a helmet: You’re more likely to see a cyclist without a helmet than a motorcycle rider. Even though it’s smart to wear a helmet while riding a bike, it’s not required by state law. (Some cities and counties have local requirements.)

•A whole pile of equipment violations: Motorcycles are required to have a headlight, tail light, brake light, turn signals, horn, mirrors, and a handful of other items that aren’t typically on an electric bike. Theoretically, a person could modify their non-conforming electric bike to meet all the requirements of a motorcycle, but it’s not easy. Prior to registering the vehicle, you’d have to install all the required equipment and get inspected by the State Patrol. And it can’t be just any equipment; it has to meet the standards in the Code of Federal Regulations. Even the required parts that are already on the electric bike would likely have to be replaced.

As an example, you’ll have a hard time finding an approved motorcycle tire that fits on a bicycle rim, so that would mean an upgrade of the wheels, which in turn requires a different fork and frame. Same for brakes, speedometer and lights. Now you’re essentially building an electric motorcycle from scratch.

For the folks shopping for an electric bike, if it’s not labeled with the classification number, top assisted speed and motor wattage, it’s not street legal. If you’ve got the skills and the courage, you can ride your high-speed electric bike anywhere the gas-powered dirt bikes can legally ride, but they don’t belong on public roads.

For folks enforcing these laws, if you encounter an electric bike that’s faster than 28 mph but appears to have a classification sticker, it’s probably fraudulent. Those stickers are readily available on the internet. For the enterprising scofflaw, it’s easy to put a classification sticker on a non-conforming bike.

Maybe that all seems like nit-picking, but putting untrained riders on two wheels at high speeds is not a good combination. Even motorcycle riders with training and the proper endorsement get themselves in over their heads. Motorcycle rider fatalities, per mile traveled, are 25 times more frequent than car driver fatalities. Electric bikes are not a loophole to allow unskilled riders to get their motorcycle fix.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.