Is it a bike or is it motor vehicle? How the debate over e-bikes could end up costing consumers

Nov 2, 2023, 10:16 PM | Updated: 10:38 pm

SOUTH JORDAN — Electric bicycles are huge right now, as sales in the U.S. topped $1.3 billion in 2022, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association.

E-bikes have also become huge targets for thieves.

When two e-bikes were stolen from a South Jordan man’s garage, he figured his homeowner’s insurance would have him covered, as it would with any other bike.

But he found himself caught in the middle of a debate between state regulators and the insurance industry over whether e-bikes are considered a motorized vehicle.

“I thought I purchased a bike”

“They were parked literally right here,” John Winterholler told KSL as he showed us his garage.

His ordeal began last summer when someone snuck into his garage.

“Oh, it was a pit in my stomach,” he said of the discovery of the theft.

John Winterholler thought his stolen e-bikes would be covered under his homeowner’s policy. ( Jeff Dahdah/KSL TV)

He filed a claim with his homeowner’s insurance, which covers bike theft. But to his shock, his insurer denied the claim. The denial letter said his policy does not cover “motor vehicles.”

“You got to be kidding,” Winterholler said. “I was disappointed, saying, ‘Well, certainly they don’t understand it. There must be something I didn’t explain.’”

There was no mistake, insisted his insurance company. Their denial means he is out more than $5,000 for the pair of e-bikes.

“I thought I purchased a bike,” said Winterholler.

He decided it was time to Get Gephardt.

Is an e-bike a bike?

“An electric bicycle is not a motor vehicle,” emphasized Utah Division of Motor Vehicles spokesperson, Jason Gardner. “There are a couple more technicalities.”

Admittedly, the legalese in the state laws defining motor vehicles can get, well, wonky. Think of all the things with motors besides cars and trucks: snowmobiles, boats, motorcycles, ATVs, golf carts, and even motorized wheelchairs. Then, think of e-bikes.

It has a motor. So why isn’t it considered a motor vehicle by the DMV?

“It’s just a definitional thing under the statute,” Gardner said.

The DMV says state statutes do not consider e-bikes as motorized vehicles.

So, can the DMV step in and help Winterholler? No.

“We have no purview or jurisdiction over insurance claims,” Gardner said.

You know who does? The Utah Insurance Department does. But what they told KSL won’t help Winterholler either.

“There is no specific classification for an e-bike in the Insurance Code or rules,” wrote spokesperson Steve Gooch in an email to KSL. “As to whether an e-bike is a bike or motor vehicle for insurance purposes, there unfortunately isn’t a satisfying answer at the moment.”

Or is an e-bike a motor vehicle?

Bear River Mutual Insurance, Winterholler’s insurer, said classifying e-bikes as motor vehicles is an industry-standard.

“From an insurance contract perspective, yes, it is a motor vehicle,” said vice-president Dave Andrist.

“All insurance contracts, or nearly all insurance contracts, a motor vehicle would be any self-propelled vehicle,” Andrist said. “And that would include anything with a throttle.”

Dave Andrist of Bear River Mutual Insurance tells KSL’s Matt Gephardt that it’s industry standard for insurers to treat e-bikes as motorized vehicles. (Meghan Thackrey/KSL TV)

He admits a disparity in the definition of an e-bike exists, but he says the industry has not seen it become much of an issue, yet.

“I’ll be honest, e-bike is an emerging issue, right?” Andrist said. “Because we went from having almost none of them in 2018, five or six years ago, to having, I’d say thousands, maybe tens of thousands.”

He says the insurance industry is “always looking at these emerging issues and looking how to incorporate them into their contracts so that people are covered.”

Insuring an e-bike

If you want to make sure your e-bike is covered by insurance, you need to talk to your agent.

Some e-bikes that only work when pedaled might already be covered in your existing homeowner’s policy. Others that require the push of a button to make them go are probably not covered unless the rider pays for the specific e-bike coverage.

As for Winterholler, there is a little silver lining: He says after hearing his story, the manufacturer cut him a pretty good deal on new e-bikes.

“We like them so much,” he said of e-bikes. “We wanted to replace them.”

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Is it a bike or is it motor vehicle? How the debate over e-bikes could end up costing consumers