e-bike riders in Northern Ireland who don't hold a motorbike licence are breaking the law, it has been revealed. In an interview on BBC Ulster's The Nolan Show, a police spokesman told listeners that anyone that broke the law by riding without a licence could face six penalty points and a fine of up to £1,000.
Why is this? Well, back before 1995 the requirement for a motorbike license to ride an electric bike was in place across the UK, but an update to the law in England, Scotland and Wales created an exemption for electrically-assisted pedal cycles (EAPCs), making them legally equivalent to a standard bike. However, the legislation didn't include Northern Ireland, so the orginal law still holds there. A consultation document from the Department for the Environment, dated 16 March 2016, but as yet there's been no change in the law.
What does this mean for e-bike riders in NI?
Simply put, it means that your e-bike is considered a motorbike, and the laws governing its use are motorbike laws. In theory this means that it'll need to be registered, taxed and insured, and you'll need to wear a protective helmet that complies with motorbike standards: not a bike helmet.
It doesn't seem that the law is common knowledge on the ground in Northern Ireland, and most people are riding e-bikes as bikes. Certainly the shops we've spoken to today confirmed that there'd been a lot of talk about it in the last couple of days, but really that's the first time it had been brought up as an issue. "They're just bikes", was a common refrain. Companies that hire electric bikes in the territory also seem to be ignorant of the law, with e-bike hire as simple as bike hire and not requiring any licensing or special equipment.
Where from here?
It's clear that moves are afoot to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK, but until then bike shops and operators face a quandary. Already some businesses are saying they'll be forced to close; the Lurgan Mail reported yesterday that a businessman who'd set up a guided e-MTB tour company and invested £10,000 in bikes is having to sell the bikes and close the company down due to the uncertainty. “I know to ride them [e-bikes] on the road you have to have tax and insurance, but as for riding them off-road I really don’t know what the law is if you were on some of the mountain bike trails", says business owner Clive Anderson. "If they are being treated as motorbikes you’re probably not allowed to ride them on the mountain bike trails. I don’t know how I would stand, so I can’t take the risk.”