When States Get In the Way
By Noel Adams
There is no question that interest in electric vehicles is higher now than it has been in almost a hundred years. The high cost of gas, the prospect of fuel shortages in the future, and the threat of global warming have driven many to look for alternatives and electric cars are a great solution.
We have seen in the past that federal legislation, such as stringent crash test requirements, has placed barriers in front of manufacturers looking to build electric cars. What is less well known are barriers that have been erected by the Legislatures of some States.
When the US came into being after the revolutionary war it was governed by the Articles of Confederation. This document placed much of the governance of the country on the states. When the Constitution was ratified in 1783 it too left many issues pertinent to the state under control of that state.
This split of control also happens in laws related to automobiles. A good example is the law regarding low speed vehicles or NEVs. The basic regulation determining top speed, safety equipment, and certain road usage laws is controlled be the Federal government but then they passed the buck, stating that each state must pass legislation to allow NEVs on their streets.
Some states passed legislation quickly while others dragged their feet. It has only in the last few months that Kentucky passed a bill allowing NEVs on public roads, leaving Connecticut as the only holdout.
A few state legislatures passed the buck even further down the line when they placed legislation on their books allowing NEVs only when they were approved by the local Municipal Authority.
Tracy Crawford wanted to buy a GEM long bed utility to use for her business but Wisconsin didn't have NEV legislation. When they finally passed a bill they made it contingent on each city and township approving the use of NEVs on their streets. Tracy spent the next year and a good deal of effort to get the five townships around Green Bay, WI, where she does business, to let her drive her GEM in their communities. People who want to own NEVs in Wisconsin and in Neighboring Illinois still have a hit and miss situation when it comes to their town allowing NEVs.
Even California has odd situations when it comes to NEVs. The NEV law in California says that a NEV cannot be driven on State Highways. For the most part this law makes sense since most state highways are posted at much higher speed limits than the 35mph cap for driving NEVs. But State highways also run through cities. For example, in the Los Angeles area, State route 2 runs along Santa Monica Blvd through Hollywood, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, West LA then down into Santa Monica. Technically, though this is the best route for NEVs traveling between say Santa Monica and West LA, the street is off limits. The same goes for Lincoln Blvd running down from Santa Monica through Venice into Marina Del Rey. Fortunately the local law enforcement turns a blind eye to NEVs moving along these roads.
Massachusetts has just recently passed new Low Speed Vehicle legislation. In a misguided concern for public safety they have limited the roads that NEVs can drive on to those that are posted at a maximum speed of 30mph instead of the more normal 35mph greatly limiting the utility of these vehicles. I particularly like the passage “If the speed limit increases above 30 miles per hour on the portion of the public way immediately ahead, you must get off the public way, if it is safe to do so, after making the appropriate turn signal. If it is not safe to do so, you must move the vehicle as far as possible off of the road surface and wait until a police officer or other public safety officer can be summoned to direct the safe movement of the vehicle.” I suppose it is too much to post a sign at the last intersection saying NEVs must exit the roadway.
There are also many issues that face a driver who wants to register an electric three wheel vehicle. In most states these are classified as motor cycles. In California you can drive on with a normal car driver’s license but if you live in Washington State you need to get a motorcycle endorsement even though these vehicles drive like a car not like a motorcycle.
In Washington State an owner of a Xebra, or NmG have to pass a driving test designed for a motor cycle and side car. The owner starts with a written test which contains questions not covered in the driver’s handbook and also questions not relevant to a three wheel vehicle fully enclosed vehicle. If you manage to pass that test then you move along to a driving test.
The test isn’t designed for a vehicle as large as a Xebra although NmG drivers have a lot less trouble since their vehicle is much smaller. With the Xebra the course needs to be modified to allow for its greater length and width. Now the most difficult part of the test is coming to a stop with the front wheel in a box painted on the test track. When riding a motorcycle this is quite easy since you can clearly see the front wheel but in a car like the Xebra you can’t see the front wheel at all from inside the cab. In any event, you aren’t really interested in where the front wheel goes since you can’t see it. Like in a car you are interested in the location of the front bumper.
Iowa also has a similar requirement for three wheel vehicle drivers to have a motorcycle endorsement on their license. The test in Iowa is similar to the one in Washington State with the added issue that people often have to drive a long way to a test station. One Xebra driver who declined to be named had to trailer his Xebra 25 miles to the nearest testing station, the 50 mile round trip being way too far for a Xebra. The test center only allows 10 motorcycle tests per day so turning up early is essential. At 8am there were already 5 people in line. Once again the most difficult part of the test was to stop with the front wheel in a box painted on the floor. The owner did report that the DMV personnel at the test site were very helpful, something you don’t hear very often, and both he and his wife eventually passed the test.
There are other archaic laws on the books that govern three wheel vehicles. Take the case of Benjamin Burnham who bought a ZAP Xebra and registered it in the state of Massachusetts. Imagine his surprise when, a few weeks later, he got a letter from the state DMV informing him that the Xebra was illegal in his state and that his registration was being pulled. What was especially surprising is that Benjamin also owns a Sparrow and the registration on that didn’t seem to be a problem.
It appears that there was a law in the state of Massachusetts that says that a three wheel vehicle with an enclosed cab cannot carry a passenger. The Sparrow, being a single seat car, does not fall under this rule. So, let’s get this straight, Biker Bob can put his 13 year old daughter on the back of his Harley wearing nothing but a crash helmet and a string bikini and head off up the freeway at 70mph and that’s OK, but for Benjamin to put a child in his Xebra, where she would be much safer than on the back of a Harley, and head down the road at a maximum speed of 38mph, would be deemed illegal.
There were more people having this problem. I checked ebay and noticed that other people had sold their Xebras often at about half the original selling price, giving the reason that Massachusetts had pulled his registration.
With the recognition that we need to move to more environmentally responsible vehicles, Massachusetts has come under a lot of pressure from the media about this issue. To respond to this they have recently passed legislation to allow three wheel enclosed vehicles to be registered for street use. This sounds good but the bill says “its speed on a paved level surface can exceed 30 miles per hour but is not capable of exceeding 40 miles per hour”. This would allow people to register a ZAP Xebra but may now mean that an NmG can no longer be registered since it can exceed 40mph, and would definitely exclude the Triac, ZAP Alias and Aptera when these come on sale later this year.
Massachusetts isn’t the only state where Xebra registrations are being pulled. In the State of Ohio Xebra owners are also being told that their vehicle doesn’t qualify as a motorcycle. On further investigation it turns out that the Ohio law defines a motorcycle as a vehicle having a saddle while the Xebra has a seat so it didn't fit the profile of a motorcycle. Not knowing what to classify this EV they decided to just say the car wasn't street legal.
South Carolina also had issues with three wheel vehicles so they have recently passed new legislation that allows three wheel vehicles on the roads. What they did was to introduce two classifications, one for an “Automotive three-wheel vehicle”, which is distinguished by having a bench type seat and a steering wheel, and another for a “Motorcycle three-wheel vehicle” distinguished by having a saddle and handlebars for steering. The new ruling classifies the Xebra or Nmg as an “Automotive three-wheel vehicle” and allows this class of vehicle to be driven with only a basic driver’s license.
The new legislation in South Carolina was brought about because of direct pressure on the Legislature by the Media. Basically owners such as Benjamin Burnham, who are having difficulty registering their vehicle, or getting a license to drive it, have the option of contacting their local newspaper or TV Channel. These guys love a good story about how the “Little Guy” is doing his best for the environment while big government is getting in the way. Such stories usually fuel some action in the state legislature pretty quickly.
One area that is being addressed by the various states is the issue of Medium Speed Vehicles (MSV). This comes from the idea that the NEV is really too slow for use in many situations. On a 35mph street traffic is quite often bombing along at 45mph and a 25mph NEV is going to rapidly become a traffic hazard. Many drivers shy away from NEVs because of this.
Five states, Montana, Washington, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Tennessee have passed legislation that allow some NEVs, those that have doors and a few other safety features, to drive on roads with posted speed limits of 45mph or less at a maximum speed of 35mph. California is considering similar legislation and there is a movement in that state to get legislation at the Federal level.
Without the Federal legislation we get into a very funny situation, the cars can legally drive on the streets of the above mentioned states at 35mph, but the manufacturer can’t legally make a car that goes 35mph. Two years ago I was talking to an engineer from GEM who told me that the DOT had clamped down on them because their NEVs could, in some situations, travel at 27mph.
What happens with the cars now is that they must be sold with their controller set to limit top speed to 25mph. If the car goes to a MSV state then the dealer, or owner, can modify the car to go 35mph.
The Federal government needs to take control of the situation. We know we need electric vehicles on the road and we know that over the long term electric vehicles are inevitable. What we need know is clear legislation across all 50 states that will allow companies like ZAP, ZENN Myers Motors, Miles Automotive, Aptera, and the whole batch of other companies who are currently looking to market NEVs and three wheel vehicles.
There is a demand for these vehicles that is growing daily as people start to realize that gas prices are going to spike above $3 a gallon again this summer and will continue on an upward trend. We need to facilitate the move to electric vehicles and we can’t do that while archaic state laws get in the way.
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