Slovenian ladder case leads to e-bike insurance debate

Three women are cycling along an urban road on e-cargo bikes. One has a child on the back of the bike. They are all wearing normal clothes and cycling helmets. There's a white car and trees in the background
Electric assist cycling. Photo flckcr cc:XtracycleIn
A tractor driver knocking a man off a ladder on a Slovenian farm has led to the possible extension of compulsory motor insurance to include e-bikes in the UK. But when is a bike propelled by mechanical power, and when is it merely power assisted? And will the Government do what it promised and exercise common sense with any insurance changes?

Ladders, e-bikes and Slovenian farm workers

When a Slovenian farm worker fell off a ladder in 2007, nobody imagined the legal fall-out would trigger an argument about whether third party insurance was needed to ride an e-bike. Whilst Mr Vnuk's fall was caused by a reversing tractor, the court case that followed risks pulling the ladder from underneath the growing e-bike industry.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ), where the Vnuk case case ended up, decided that various European Union (EU) countries, including the UK, had misunderstood the implications of the EU Motor Insurance Directive (MID) concerning insurance requirements for motor vehicles. Potentially, the decision extends the requirement for compulsory insurance to mechanically propelled vehicles used off the public highway, and widens the scope of vehicles requiring insurance.

Golf buggies, mobility scooters and motorised toys

Last December, the Government launched a consultation on motor insurance and the implications of the Vnuk judgement, providing examples of vehicles thought to be 'newly in scope', which might now require insurance. These included golf buggies, mobility scooters, motorised ride-on children's toys, and e-bikes - or to give them their correct name as used within the consultation, electrically assisted pedal cycles. The word 'assisted' is important.

The concern is that mandating insurance for e-bikes might disincentivise their use, create a barrier for sales, and restrict the growth in a form of active travel which should be encouraged. Insurance for e-bikes would necessarily require a bike registration system, the introduction of which would encourage the usual suspects to suggest that all cyclists, whether e-assisted or not, should be licenced and insured, neither of which are justified and both of which would act as an unnecessary barrier to cycling.

Given that Government changes to UK motor vehicle insurance legislation, to comply with the Vnuk ruling, could adversely affect e-bike use, Cycling UK has worked with the Bicycle Association and other allies to submit a detailed response to the consultation, explaining why e-bikes should be excluded from any extended insurance requirement.

'Powered' or just 'assisted'?

Firstly, we argued that e-bikes are not 'newly in scope' vehicles, as they are not 'mechanically propelled' but rather 'mechanically assisted', with the electric power assist designed to complement not replace human power. Of the vehicles that the Government suggests might be 'newly in scope', e-bikes are the only example where human power remains the primary source of propulsion, whereas with the others the mechanical power operates solely and independently to propel the vehicle. Those vehicles are mechanically propelled, but e-bikes merely have an option for electric assistance and hence should not be caught by insurance requirements applicable to 'mechanically propelled' vehicles.

Secondly, we argued that even if the Government decides that e-bikes are 'newly in scope', that it should exercise its powers of derogation to exempt them from an insurance policy requirement.

Common, or not so common sense

The consultation only closed two weeks ago, and the debate is inevitably complicated by the whole Brexit issue. In the consultation, however, the Government promised that "its guiding principle in proposing changes to motor insurance law will be to adopt a common-sense approach, which will keep costs to a minimum".

Hopefully, they will realise that treating a bike powered by pedals, but with an electric power assist option, as a motor vehicle requiring insurance - all because a man fell of a ladder in Slovenia - makes no common sense, would be cost-inefficient, and contrary to manifesto commitments to promote and encourage cycling.

Before anyone mentions this, yes, I know, the thing about common sense is that, unfortunately, it's not that common. Perhaps that's why the tractor driver managed to reverse into Mr Vnuk's ladder.

I wonder whether Vnuk was wearing hi-viz and had lights on his ladder?