Why Northern Ireland is in a mess over pedelec regulations

People in Northern Ireland who are using or would like to use a pedal assisted electric bike 25 km/h-250W have to put up with a few legal hurdles. Whilst the rest of the European Union categorizes these vehicles as bicycles, Northern Ireland, in a fit of insanity, decided otherwise and categorized the vehicle as a motor vehicle.

The problems which now arise from this decision lay bare once again a fundamental problem of European rules and regulations on electric bikes. That fundamental problem is the fact that technical rules are harmonized and should therefore be implemented in the same way in all European member states. But for the rules on how to use electric bikes, member states remain competent. Consequently, whilst an electric bike in technical rules is categorized as one thing, member states can categorize it in their traffic code, for insurance reasons, etc. as something completely different.

Northern Ireland has made use of this liberty and has done a very sloppy job. Presumably, for lack of any knowledge about the potential of this sustainable transport mode, they have decided that a pedelec 25 km/h-250W is a motor vehicle and should therefore be used accordingly. So, Northern Irish citizens who wish to put an effort into contributing to sustainable transport are hit with the full monty: insurance, registration, motorcycle helmet, protective clothing, tax and a theoretical and practical test to obtain the required driving licence.

We assume that on top of all this, pedelec riders are not allowed on cycle paths but are forced to risk their lives at a maximum of 25 km/h by mingling with cars, trucks, busses, … passing them by at 70, 80, 90 km/h?

Northern Ireland has the legal right to impose all these absurd rules, except for the one on driving licences. The European Driving Licences Directive states that “the driving licence (AM in this case) shall authorise the driving of power-driven vehicles in the category defined as: Two-wheel vehicles or three-wheel vehicles with a maximum design speed of not more than 45 km/h, as defined in Article 1(2)(a) of Directive 2002/24/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 March 2002 relating to the type-approval of two or three-wheel motor vehicles (1 ) (excluding those with a maximum design speed under or equal to 25 km/h), and light quadricycles as defined in Article 1(3)(a) of Directive 2002/24/EC.”

It is very questionable if the above European legal text could be used to put Northern Ireland on the spot. Directive 2002/24/EC has been repealed in the meantime and replaced by Regulation 168/2013. It must be difficult to lodge a complaint against a member state based on a piece of legislation that doesn’t exist anymore. However, there is more in the Driving Licences Directive. It defines a power-driven vehicle as “any self-propelled vehicle running on a road under its own power”. A pedelec does not comply with this definition and is therefore excluded from the Directive. That is why Northern Ireland has no legal right to impose a driving licence on these vehicles.

But here is the root of the issue: nobody is interested and certainly not interested enough to set things straight.

It is unlikely for the European Commission to be bothered enough to issue a warning to Northern Ireland for the infringement of legislation, which they are not bothered to update in the first place. The European Commission is more than probably not even aware of the infringement. There is currently no Northern Irish government to correct the mistake and there is certainly nothing to expect from a UK government that needs all the time it can get to worm itself out of the European yolk.

The electric bike business just waits for better times and some of them even suspend sales. And since there are hardly any electric bikes on the road, whilst those on the road must look like runaways from Easy Rider, how could one expect public opinion to be bothered.

In the meantime, the political and academic world rack their brains over solutions to more important problems such as climate change, poor air quality, congestion, deteriorating road safety, oil dependency, obesity, diabetes, etc. And the European Commission does not fail to organize public consultations, stakeholders’ meetings, and to issue tenders for long and detailed studies in an attempt to help solving these problems.

Part of the solution is ever so simple: get in the saddle and pedal, with or without assistance. But would you try that solution in a heavy leather suit and a pot on your head?

Annick Roetynck

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