E-bikes up for legal test in Oregon

“If you’re in court, they’ll look at the body of statutes, and it is not crystal clear.”
— David House, Oregon DMV

There’s a case brewing in Springfield (near Eugene), Oregon that could set a precedent and clarify several legal issues around the operation of electric-assisted bicycles. We broke down much of the legal morass around e-bikes in a post last year, but adding complexity — and confusion — to the issues are cases where the bicycle operator has a suspended or revoked driver’s license.

Here’s a snip from the Register-Guard, which reported on a case involving Springfield resident and e-bike rider Paul McClain earlier this month:

The Ohm electric-assist bicycle-6.jpg

It’s a motor, but is it a “motor vehicle”?
(Photo © J. Maus)

“Since March 24, police have stopped and cited McClain five times for driving with a suspended license. In each instance, police told McClain that he can’t use the electric bicycle… unless he first gets his driving privileges reinstated.

Still, [police officer Shawn] Monson acknowledged that the law McClain cites in making his case — the one that states an “electric-assisted bicycle shall be considered a bicycle, rather than a motor vehicle … except when otherwise specifically provided by statute” — raises an issue that needs to be reviewed by a judge or a jury…”

Interestingly, we’ve also recently heard about a similar case.

Drew Peters lives in a hilly part of Southeastern Eugene. His driver’s license has been revoked for a minimum of 10 years (and possibly life) for what he describes as “some mistakes I made over the last 15 years,” some of which include three DUII convictions.

“Every time I call the DMV, I get a different answer… All I want is the ability to commute, work, and function in the community.”
— Drew Peters

“Losing driving privileges meant losing my career and in turn a lot of hard times for my family and I,” Peters told us via email. He’s been unemployed for over a year and said he’s trying to turn his life around; but without a means of transportation, it has been difficult.

Peters figured a bicycle with an electric motor would be a good option. However, the Oregon DMV and Eugene Municipal Courts have sent him mixed messages as to whether or not he can legally operate one.

“Every time I call the DMV, I get a different answer.”

We spoke with Oregon DMV spokesman David House. He acknowledged that this situation occupies a messy legal grey area that needs to be cleaned up.

In this case, there are two key areas of confusion in Oregon law. The first is the inconsistent use of the terms “vehicle” and “motor vehicle” throughout the Oregon Revised Statutes. The two terms are used interchangeably — yet the former specifically includes bicycles and the latter does not. This makes it hard to always know what laws apply to bicycles (or, by extension e-bikes), and which ones do not.

The other area of confusion has to do with whether or not people with suspended or revoked driver’s licenses are allowed to operate an e-bike at all. Here’s the relevant Oregon law (via an ODOT fact sheet):

“Although a driver license is not required for… electric assisted bicycles… riders must be… eligible for driving privileges.”

So, the questions are: Which laws that apply to “vehicles” and “motor vehicles” also apply to e-bikes? And, if someone has a revoked or suspended driver’s license, are they still “eligible for driving privileges” and therefore able to legally operate an e-bike?

“There isn’t an answer to these questions,” says Oregon DMV spokesperson David House. “When it gets down to the legal minutiae, it comes down to court precedents and this one has been ruled both ways.”

House blames the lack of consistent language in the ORS as the cause of confusion. “If you’re in court, they’ll look at the body of statutes, and it is not crystal clear.”

According to House, the bottom line is that, “It’s not clear in statute that you can operate an e-bike on public roads while your driving privileges are suspended… It’s a classic case of tell it to the judge.”

Meanwhile, Drew Peters just wants a way to get around so he can work and feed his family*. He’s following the McClain case closely and Peters hopes that a ruling in McClain’s favor sets a positive precedent for people in his situation.

“All I want is the ability to commute, work, and function in the community.”

McClain’s court date is May 4th. We’ll let you know how it turns out.

[*Of course, this raises the issue of whether or not it’s a good idea for people with suspended or revoked licenses to be able to operate a bicycle; but that’s a topic for another day.]

— For more on e-bike laws, read our post, “E-bikes, the law, and you,” from August 2010.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus is BikePortland’s editor, publisher and founder. Contact him at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at [email protected], or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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