When you think about “e-bikes,” what do you think of? Like many words and phrases, it can depend on who you ask. For many people, it’s short for “electric bicycles,” which usually have electric motors intended as pedal assistance, and do not completely get rid of human pedal power. 

However, it’s impossible to sit in our cozy little motorcycle niche and not have heard or seen at least one person use the phrase “e-bikes” when they mean to talk about electric motorcycles. While they’re clearly wrong, it’s not difficult to see their reasoning. After all, piston-powered motorcycles—or motorbikes, if you’re in a UK or commonwealth country—are often simply referred to as “bikes.” The math isn’t completely out of left field. 

You don’t have to take RideApart’s word for it, though. In a recent ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union, the court officially found that electric bicycles are not considered “vehicles” by EU definition. Motorcycles, by contrast, are most definitely vehicles. In other words, e-bikes are, by legal definition in at least one region of the planet, not considered motorcycles. 

The Court Case in Question

On October 12, 2023, the EU Court of Justice issued a judgement in the case of a cyclist who was riding an electric bicycle in Belgium in October 2017. The cyclist was hit by a car, and later died of his injuries. A legal argument arose after his death regarding the matter of compensation, which rested on the legal classification of the cyclist’s electric bicycle.  

Was it considered to meet the legal definition of a “vehicle,” meaning that it must be insured like other road-going vehicles? The electric bicycle in question featured a motor that provided pedal assistance and had a boost function, but that boost function wouldn’t work unless a rider first used human muscle power to get the bike moving. 

Prior to this ruling, the legal definition of “vehicle” did not indicate whether a device meeting that description “must be propelled exclusively by mechanical power.” However, thanks to this new ruling, the European Parliament is issuing an official amendment to redefine “vehicle” as “any motor vehicle propelled exclusively by mechanical power.” This amendment will go into effect on December 23, 2023. 

While this judgment could have implications for future cases in the European Union, it’s not clear what, if any, effect it might have anywhere else in the world. Still, if you’re the type of person who develops a slight twitch when someone uses the word “e-bike” to describe an electric motorcycle, here’s a useful fact to bookmark and add to your 200 open browser tabs. 

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