Last week, I visited New Jersey to attend the 2024 Red Bull Beach Scramble (more about that event coming soon to RideApart). The event was held on the beach in Wildwood, which is also part of the (in)famous Jersey shore. 

Located in the southeastern tip of the state, and set against the moody backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, it's been a popular destination for tourists for longer than you or I have been alive. That's no mere hyperbole, either; the first Wildwoods boardwalk was apparently built all the way back in 1895, and has since been built upon and improved in the last century-plus.

Anyway, here in 2024, I can tell you that even as it's warming up in the pre-season, there are still a decent number of people out and about on a regular weekday. For the record, high season in the area officially starts on Memorial Day weekend, which you may have already guessed.

While plenty of people drive or ride motorcycles, like a lot of places, there are also a ton of bicycles and low-speed electric scooters. Some of the bikes are the old-fashioned kind powered by humans, and others are electric. But low-speed, two-wheeled transportation, either standing or sitting, is an extremely popular way to get around. 

But a recent ruling has put those last-mile and get-around machines in legal limbo. 

Bike Rail Warning Sign, Wildwood Boardwalk, May 2024

So, E-Bikes And Scooters Are Popular, But What Is This Preface Even About?

Last-mile mobility, particularly of the electric-powered kind, has been seen in recent years as a potential solution to several sticky problems that occur in densely populated areas. Whether it's an urban downtown area, a college campus, or a heavily trafficked tourist area like the downtown Wildwood, NJ area, it's easy to see why bicycles, electric scooters, and e-bikes might be a popular way to get around. 

They offer a fairly low bar for most able-bodied people to operate, they're relatively inexpensive, they're easy to park, they take up very little space, shops that rent them can store a whole lot more of them in a smaller area than they could with larger vehicles; the list goes on. Add in their purported environmental benefits, and you have a compelling recipe for many riders to hop on board.

But while bicycles have been a popular means of transportation and recreation for longer than the boardwalk in Wildwood has existed, e-bikes and e-scooters have not. And that, friends, is one of those problems where bureaucracy and finger-pointing simply hasn't kept up with the pace of modern technology.

Wildwood NJ Boardwalk - May 2024

NJ Has A No-Fault Insurance Law, But It Doesn't Cover E-Scooters Or E-Bikes

This is where it gets maddening if you're an even somewhat reasonable person.

In the US, very generally, motorists are expected to carry some type of insurance if they drive or operate a motorcycle. Different states might have slightly different specific legislation about the details, but we're speaking purely in broad terms here. 

Where New Jersey is different from many other states in the US is that it has a no-fault insurance law. Through personal injury protection (PIP), that means that no matter how a driver or pedestrian gets hurt in the event of an accident, the driver's own insurance pays for the claim. It's simply factored into the cost of insurance, instead of potentially becoming a long and drawn-out process.

Bicyclists are considered pedestrians for the purposes of how NJ's no-fault insurance law works. So, if a regular bicyclist (not an e-bike rider) is injured and files a claim, it's generally covered by insurance.

In May 2019, NJ Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation that permitted low-speed e-bikes and electric scooters (the standing kind, not the seated kind) to operate in the state.

Notably, these vehicles must only be capable of operating at speeds of 20 miles per hour or less. But very importantly in terms of encouraging adoption of these alternative forms of transportation, they don't require registration, insurance, or special licensing to operate.

In fact, the Governor's official press release announcing the legislation said that they should be "regulated much the same as ordinary bicycles, allowing their operation on streets, highways, and bicycle paths in this State."

Wait, Highways?

I know; it sounded strange to me, too. And yet, if you look at both the Merriam-Webster and Oxford dictionaries, you'll find that a "highway" is defined as "a public way," "a main direct road," or "a main road for traveling long distances, especially one connecting and going through cities and towns." 

Although most reasonable people might hear the word "highway" and automatically picture a nice stretch of two-lane blacktop with speed limits of 65 in NJ, those aren't the only roads that qualify as 'highways,' by these definitions. Which is good, because expecting low-speed e-bikes and e-scooters to operate on highways with those types of speed limits seems like a recipe for disaster.

The Lack Of Consistency And Clarity Is Causing Headaches For Users Of Low-Speed Electric Two-Wheelers

On May 14, 2024, the NJ Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case of an electric scooter rider who was injured back in 2021. Thinking he could utilize the NJ state no-fault insurance law and go to his insurer, Progressive, for help paying his medical bills, he did exactly that. And then he brought a lawsuit against Progressive when it denied his claims.

In the case of David Goyco v. Progressive Insurance Company, the NJ Supreme Court ruled that riders of low-speed electric vehicles are not, in fact, considered pedestrians, despite what Governor Murphy's PR folks may have written in that 2019 press release. 

According to the ruling, for the purposes of insurance, someone operating a low-speed electric scooter does not rely on "muscular power," and so is therefore not considered a pedestrian. This makes them unlike a traditional bicyclist, although it seems this argument could be much stickier given the operation of certain pedal-assist e-bikes. But I'm not a lawyer, and I digress.

The upshot seems to be that for practical purposes, e-bike and e-scooter riders who are injured during the course of operating their low-speed electric vehicles are left in a sort of insurance coverage limbo. If they were involved in a vehicular accident while riding a regular bicycle or even walking, they'd be fine. But because they chose alternate means of transportation that wasn't a traditional motor vehicle (either on two or four wheels), they're left to fend for themselves.

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Rather Than Fix Existing Statutes, The State Legislature Complicating Matters Further

For fans of bureaucratic red tape, the tangled mess gets even better (or worse), depending on your perspective. Earlier in the 2024 legislative session, NJ state senator Nicholas P. Scutari introduced SB 2292, which would require low-speed electric bicycles and low-speed electric scooters to be both registered with the state, and also to be insured. In other words, they would be treated like regular motor vehicles.

Lest any non-legislators think that it's merely a cynical cash grab, the registration fees mentioned in the bill as currently written would only be $8. I mean, that'll barely buy you a loaf of bread at current inflation rates, so that's clearly not anywhere near as much as payments for most cars would be.

However, a Parsippany-based independent bicycle shop owner named Brendan Poh wrote an op-ed published in USA Today and later picked up by other NJ-based websites where he outlined several common-sense problems with this bill as written. He mentions right off the bat that he owns a shop that sells and services bicycles, so his stake in the argument is clear.

But as Mr. Goyco found out through taking his case to the NJ Supreme Court, and as other e-bike and e-scooter owners have doubtless already found out and will continue to find out, they currently fall into a sort of insurance limbo that this legislation would seemingly only complicate.

Poh argues that both the state's Motor Vehicle Commission and existing insurance companies don't currently have the infrastructure set up to handle an entirely new category of vehicle. For insurance and state vehicle registration purposes, electric cars are cars, and electric motorcycles are motorcycles. So why can't electric bicycles (and low-speed scooters) be bicycles?

At the time of writing on May 21, 2024, NJ SB 2292 has been introduced in the state legislature and referred through the Senate Transportation Committee on to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. It's not clear when or if a satisfactory, reasonable solution for covering e-bike and e-scooter riders in NJ who are involved in crashes will be reached, but for now, it's more than a bit of a mess.

If you're someone who rides e-bikes or e-scooters in NJ and you have a story to tell, let us know in the comments. How would you like to see this situation resolved? What do you think would be the best way to fix the problem for riders of low-speed electric two-wheelers like these?

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