What is the definition of a bicycle? As it turns out, it depends on who you ask.

Defining a bicycle may look like a simple issue at first glance, but it is possible that differences between federal and state definitions could pose regulatory problems going forward, as well as create potential issues with insurance that covers bicycle businesses. Is a bicycle importer or retailer covered, for example, if they sell a product that doesn’t meet the federal definition of a bicycle? Could they potentially be subject to enforcement from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) for selling Class 3 e-bikes that violate the 20 m.p.h. speed limitations of federal regulations? The answers are not clear at this point, but there would appear to be some potential risk here.

The definition of a bicycle has changed over the 65 years since I started working in a bike shop in 1957. I really got interested when the CPSC, created by act of Congress in 1972, announced that its National Injury Surveillance System (NISS) had identified bicycles as being associated with an unusually high frequency of emergency room visits in 1973.

Congress became concerned about protecting the public from hazardous products and introduced the Consumer Safety Act that created the Consumer Product Safety Commission with broad regulatory and legal powers. When CPSC went live in 1972, the agency announced that the first mandatory federal safety regulation it developed and promulgated would cover bicycles.

After innumerable public meetings, and several litigations, the CPSC promulgated Requirements for Bicycles that became effective January 1, 1975. From this date forward, bicycles must meet the mandatory requirements under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA) regulation at 16 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 1512. The regulation has multiple performance requirements and specifications, and requires certain instructions and labeling.

I will be one of the first to agree that the CPSC Requirements for Bicycles are mostly out of date and need to be updated very badly. With that said, if you are making or importing a bicycle for sale to consumers in the U.S., it must meet the mandatory requirements of 16 CFR Part 1512.

This leads to my question. What is the definition of a bicycle? 16 CFR Part 1512.2 definitions states:

Bicycle means:

  1. A two-wheeled vehicle having a rear drive wheel that is solely human powered;
  2. A two or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 h.p.), whose maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 mph.

 Part 1512.2 goes on to also define Sidewalk bicycle, Track bicycle, One-of-a-kind bicycle, and Recumbent bicycle.

As was recently pointed out at the PeopleForBikes Bicycle Leadership Conference (BLC) in March, this definition is contained in the Consumer Product Safety Act, which governs the CPSC, and which Congress amended, and was signed into law in 2002 to (according to the legislative history) specifically confer jurisdiction for electric bicycles that can achieve a maximum speed less than 20 mph on the CPSC. There seems no doubt that this means CPSC has jurisdiction over bicycles, including electric bicycles, as defined in 16 CFR 1512.2 definitions, as stated above.

Further, there seems to be no doubt that the CPSC definition of bicycle includes what the U.S. bicycle business has defined as Class 1 and Class 2 electric bicycles.

This also means that what the bicycle business (and jurisdictions that have adopted the industry’s suggested three-tier definition) have defined as Class 3 electric bicycles do not meet the CPSC’s definition. This is due primarily to the higher (28 m.p.h.) top speed, and means that these vehicles are to be either regulated by another federal agency, such as NHTSA,  are subject to state regulation, or are unregulated.

There is a fork in this definitional road, with one fork for importers and makers who enter bicycles into interstate commerce for sale to retailers, and the other for retailers, or direct to consumer (DTC) sellers, who we will consider as retailers for purposes of this article.

The fork in the road for importers and makers of general-use bicycles and children’s bicycles (intended for children 12-years of age and under) involves third party testing by a laboratory approved by CPSC, and either a General Certification of Conformity (GCC) for bicycles as defined or a Children’s Product Certificate, (CPC) for bicycles intended for 12 years of age or younger, both according to CPSC guidelines.

If you are already working with a CPSC approved testing laboratory in Asia or the U.S., you already know about the process and procedure. If not, you should contact CPSC (www.cpsc.gov) and confirm your obligations to third party test and certify.

Most importers and makers already know if their GCC’s and/or CPC’s need to be submitted to or approved by CPSC, or by U.S. Customs. They also know that they must furnish copies to each distributor or retailer either as a hard copy or electronically.

The fork in the road for retailers is to make sure they are receiving GCC’s and or CPC’s from their bicycle suppliers, keeping in mind the CPSC definition of bicycle includes what is now referred to as Class 1 and Class 2 e-bikes (but not Class 3), and making sure they check with their insurance agent or broker to confirm coverage that embraces the CPSC definitions of bicycle, and the products they sell to consumers.

This is just the first of a series of articles on this and related subjects and please contact me if you have any question or feel Human Powered Solutions can be of any assistance to you or your business.

Contact Jay Townley: jay@humanpoweredsolutions.com