HomeNews & FeaturesCommutingAre petrol powered bikes beyond the law?

Are petrol powered bikes beyond the law?

When Dorothy journeyed through the land of Oz, she could have just as easily been journeying through the strange and confusing land of transport legislation. I’m not making some sort of half-veiled allusion to the Wizard and his ephemeral nature, rather I’m thinking of Dorothy’s companions on her journey – creatures who had a purpose, but ended up almost useless because they were missing some vital component.

Motor assisted bicycle laws originally had a purpose – to assist people who wanted to ride bicycles, but who lacked the desire or ability to travel solely by pedal power; it was enabling legislation. Somehow along the way, however, we’ve ended up with a situation where people are attaching internal combustion engines to cheap mountain bikes and riding them on bike paths. While I don’t have any hard statistics, anecdotally the number of these vehicles is increasing, and a lot of people aren’t happy about it; they have good reason.

For a few hundred dollars you can buy a well made imported engine specifically designed to be attached to a mountain bike. With a few hours and a bit of mechanical knowledge, you’ve got a vehicle that can do around a 100km on a litre of petrol. If you don’t want to go to all of that trouble, for just a little bit extra you can find completely converted bikes openly traded on eBay and Gumtree. It’s not illegal to make them or to buy them, but it is illegal to ride them, at least sometimes, and in some states.

And there lies the problem. In states like Queensland,  the law is very clear – bikes do not have internal combustion engines, period. If it has an internal combustion engine, it’s a motorbike and it has to be registered and has to conform with Australian standards for motorbike design. All laws relating to motorised bikes in Queensland relate to bikes with electric motors, everything else is a motorbike.

In other states, the laws are often confusing because they don’t always clearly differentiate between electric motors and internal combustion motors. It’s a mismatched collection of maximum wattages, requirements for cut-out speeds and obscure terminology. Are you allowed to have a motor on your bike? How many cc’s can my engine have before it reaches 200 W? What’s a road related area?

While it’s up to the individual to make sure they know and comply with relevant laws, in practice that simply doesn’t happen, especially when they’re updated regularly. Being confused about the law probably isn’t a valid legal defence, but it’s likely a mitigating factor, especially when you can buy and sell these bikes quite legally. If they’re illegal, why are you allowed to buy them?

So what’s the problem with petrol powered bikes?
In theory, nothing. Everything that’s good about pedal powered bikes is also good about motorised bikes, with the added benefit that you don’t have to pedal. Cycling can be hard work, especially when the geography doesn’t  cooperate, so having motors on bikes is often a great benefit. In fact, this is how motorbikes were invented, both petrol powered and electric. But the lessons learned in early motorbike development seem to have been forgotten in the past century, and so we may be doomed to repeat them.

To explain what I mean, I’ll go back to the very clear description of motorised bikes in Queensland law: if you want to ride it on the road, a bike with an internal combustion engine (or an electric motor over a certain wattage) must comply with the Australian Design rules for motorbikes. To put it simply, putting an engine on a bike may exceed the design specifications of the bike.

That’s what this all boils down to: putting engines on bikes that aren’t designed for engines is dangerous. The brakes, the body, the drive train and the wheels of modern bicycles are simply not designed to deal with the stresses and forces produced by attached internal combustion engines. Backyard bike conversions, while fine in theory, are accidents waiting to happen, and they’ll happen to either the rider or to some other member of the public unlucky enough to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. This is why motorbikes need to be registered, why there are design standards for them and why there is a whole collection of safety gear available for them – they may have once been bicycles, but they’re not any more.

And so there is a line, but it’s not clearly drawn. Electric motors in bikes have followed a very different development pathway to internal combustion motors, but the same danger exists there as well. This is why there is strict legislation about power limits and pedal assist technology. Applying the same laws to internal combustion engines on bikes, as some states seem to do, should provide the same sort of safeguards but, unfortunately, I still don’t think the technology of the internal combustion engine is safe for bicycles.

Regardless of whether you’re for them or against them, whether you want them stopped or you want them regulated, there are grey areas in the law, and it’s in those areas that potential disaster lies. We need new, clear and standardised laws and we need them to be inclusive of everyone who wants to ride a bike. We need to outlaw the danger, but we need to embrace the desire.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of Bicycles Network Australia.

Photo 1 © Paul Keller, Photo 2 © Brian Hansen

David Halfpenny
David Halfpenny
rides whenever and wherever he can; in good weather and bad, in sickness and in health...and mostly off the back of the peloton.
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