PROVIDENCE — Despite opposition, the state House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill that would regulate electric bicycles as bikes rather than as motor vehicles.
The House voted 56 to 13 for the legislation after Republicans and Democrats raised safety concerns, warning that e-bikes could cause injuries and the legislation would not require registration or insurance.
Representative Charlene M. Lima, a Cranston Democrat, asked what would happen if an e-bike rider with no liability insurance hit a “lady pushing a baby carriage” and the child ended up injured.
“Is this going to end up with some of these kids getting together like the ATV riders — ‘OK, we’ll meet at the bowling alley with our electric bikes and we can go harassing people.’?” Lima said. “So I don’t think this is a good idea.”
But Representative Joseph J. Solomon Jr., a Warwick Democrat, backed the bill, saying the legislation would bring Rhode Island in line with the 39 other states that have established a three-class system for e-bikes, and he said eight other states regulate e-bikes as bicycles.
“Why does Rhode Island have to always be an outlier?” Solomon asked. “This just brings us in terms with every other state that is doing this. It’s a great bill.”
Representative George A. Nardone, a Coventry Republican, said he is concerned about the largest class of e-bikes that can reach speeds of 28 mph. “They can do a great deal of impact if you run into somebody,” he said, “and I find it to be somewhat of a danger to have these bicycles on bike paths.”
Nardone noted that last year a bicycle rider was injured — and had to have his jaw wired shut — after an e-bike collided with him head-on, and the e-bike rider gave police a fake name. “I don’t think they should be on bike paths,” he said of e-bikes, “and I will not support his bill.”
Representative Megan Cotter, an Exeter Democrat, supported the bill, saying she owns an e-bike and takes it, rather than her car, to pick up milk and other items at a Cumberland Farms that is 2.7 miles from her home. And she said the e-bike came in handy while campaigning door-to-door in her rural district.
The proposed legislation “will get more cars off of the road, which will help reduce our emissions,” Cotter said. “So I think there’s a lot of positives that we haven’t quite considered or talked about yet with an e-bike, but I also think it’s a great way to get from Place A to Place B.”
Representative Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, a Cranston Republican who works as a physical therapist, said she sees patients with traumatic brain injuries all the time. So she asked why the state would not want to require e-bike riders to have insurance.
“This isn’t like someone going down the road at 10 mph — this thing has a punch,” she said. “I’m just kind of surprised that we are exempting them from insurance and financial responsibility.”
Solomon said that if an e-bike rider injured someone, they could still potentially be held liable. And he said people can go 28 mph on a human-powered bicycle, as well.
Fenton-Fung said, “You are so awesome. I could not go 28 mph on a bike.” Still, she said, “I think it’s dangerous that we don’t have insurance when we are talking about electric vehicles like this.”
Representative Jennifer Boylan, a Barrington Democrat, said the issue is “very personal” for her because her brother-in-law died on an e-bike about a year ago, at age 52. “He hit nothing, and nothing hit him,” she said. “He wasn’t wearing a helmet. So we don’t really know what happened. He never regained consciousness.”
Boylan said e-bikes worry her. “I live in a bike path town,” she said. “I also know that many people use them for commuting. And honestly, what is helping me through this bill is knowing that there is a speed limit.”
The legislation would prohibit people from riding Class 3 electric bicycles in a bicycle lane or multi-use path faster than the the posted speed limit, or if there is no posted limit, no faster than 20 mph.
“I hope the speed limit is enforced and people wear their helmets,” Boylan said, before voting for the bill.
Representative Rebecca Kislak, a Providence Democrat, sponsored the bill. And last week, she joined the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition in organizing an electric bicycle demonstration for legislators in a State House parking lot.
The legislation now goes to the Senate, where Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Dawn Euer, a Newport Democrat, has introduced a companion bill.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.