Some IBDs and the small but growing number of light electric vehicle retailers stock electric micro-scooters. But can customers ride them away from the store without being pulled up by the long arm of the law? Samantha Mangwana of Russell Jones and Walker - "Solicitors for Cyclists" - reviews the relevant legislation and case law. (But the basic answer is "no".)

Buzz off

Some retailers are offering micro-scooters for sale on the basis that the money will be refunded if they are found not legal for road use. Police have advised that they would be legal if insured, but that no one will offer insurance. And there have been stories in the press of courts treating the machines as small motorcycles, and putting penalty points on the licences of un-insured, un-taxed, un-helmeted users. The legal position certainly requires considerable clarification. Unfortunately, the current situation is far from satisfactory.

In a High Court case (CC N Yorks v Saddington, Oct 2000), a Go-Ped petrol-driven micro-scooter was found to come within the definition of a motor vehicle under Section 185 of the Road Traffic Act 1988. This means that their use is governed by the same legislation that applies to motorcycles and mopeds, since there is no criteria for minimum power or speed output.

Since then, the Vehicle Certification Agency, responsible for approving new vehicles, has considered that electric micro-scooters are also covered by the ruling, since they are no less “mechanically propelled vehicles intended or adapted for use on roads”. This was more recently confirmed in a subsequent High Court case (Letitia Water v DPP, July 2002) involving a City Bug electric model.

They are therefore deemed to be mopeds in the eyes of the law, since mopeds are the lowest powered two-wheel vehicles. However, this means they must meet the standards required for a moped to be used on the road. This will include the requirements for mirrors and lights, under the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986 and the Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations 1989. It is therefore illegal to ride a typical fun electric micro-scooter on the road.

It is also illegal to use them on cycle paths and pavements, where mopeds are not permitted. This leads to the ridiculous situation that the only legal place to ride an electric scooter is on private property.

However, any vehicle approved under European Community Whole Type Approval can be legally used on the roads. To date only two models, the Charly MZ and the Heinzmann Electric Surfer, have obtained EC approval, and they can, therefore, be legally registered as mopeds, and used on the roads in the UK.

In fact, trendy urban types and youngsters alike are committing a whole raft of offences when you see them ‘scooting’ in the street. All the requirements for riding a moped must be met, including a licence, registration, insurance, a tax disc, and even an MOT after three years. A crash helmet must also be worn. Chris Eubank discovered this to his cost, when he was charged for scootering round Brighton without a helmet. He received a conditional discharge and had to pay £35 in costs.

Toy manufacturers have advertised the scooters as legal provided they are only ridden by children over 14, relying on electric bike legislation, but it is clear that the Department for Transport sees things differently.

Provisions in the Transport Act 1981 state that an electric bicycle avoids being classed as a motorcycle if it weighs less than 40kg, is fitted with pedals, has a maximum power output of 200 watts and cannot be propelled at more than 15 miles per hour. But in the City Bug case, the judge ruled that the scooter was not, “fitted with pedals by means of which it is capable of being propelled”, and therefore the Electrically Assisted Pedal Cycle Regulations 1983 would not apply.

This is clearly a grey area in the law, with many micro-scooter riders not unreasonably feeling that they are being arbitrarily restricted from engaging in harmless fun, or from adopting an environmentally-friendly transport solution. The DETR has confirmed that there are no proposals to create a new category for scooters, or to adapt the electric cycle category to include them.

A further complication is that, despite defining micro-scooters as motor vehicles, the judges have so far refrained from actually categorising them, on the basis that this fell to the DETR. This has made it impossible to obtain insurance since insurance companies are understandably reluctant to provide cover for vehicles which cannot comply to requirements.

As far as enforcement goes, this is obviously a matter for police forces to consider in the light of local circumstances, but warnings have been issued in a number of regions. While we often hear that ignorance of the law is no defence, it may be that in some cases ignorance really is bliss, since the police attitude has, by and large, been merely to warn riders genuinely unaware that their scooters are classified as mopeds.

But be warned! Driving without insurance is a Level Five offence, and riders potentially face a £1,000 fine and 6-8 points on their licence, if they have one. New legislation means that youngsters who have not yet qualified for a full driving licence will have these penalty points added to any future licence. And yes, police have confirmed that children will lose their licence when they’re old enough to hold one.

And that’s not all, people have been picked up for driving whilst disqualified and even drink driving, so riding one of the petrol-powered machines home from the pub could cost you your licence! The situation with electric scooters is more confused. According to The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, at least one rider has been let off with a caution by the police, who concluded that the vehicle was covered by the same archaic catch-all law that applies to cyclists: “people who were very unsteady on pedal cycles, vehicles propelled by foot and steam-propelled vehicles”. The DETR is unable to conclude definitely, since the issue has not yet been tested in the courts, but the view is that since the scooters can be classed as mopeds, it would be inconsistent if the same drink/drive legislation did not apply. So on top of everything else, make sure you stay off the liqueur chocolates before considering a scoot.

Russell Jones and Walker provide a free 24-hour Accident Line and online advice service for CTC members

This article first appeared in A to B Magazine

In other news...

TotalMTB launches in Canada

TotalMTB, the award-nominated non-profit community, has launched in Canada. The Community Interest Company (CIC) was …