Just another brief news item of yet another traffic collision. This one happened on a busy San Diego County street on a Thursday evening around 5 p.m. last December. A 17-year-old boy on an electric bike traveling at an unknown speed in a designated bike lane collided with a delivery truck as he entered an intersection. It is possible he could have been traveling upward of 20 mph, well within the bike’s range, given he was thrown from it with such force as to cause major injuries, according to the San Diego Union Tribune report. The lad was transported by paramedics to the hospital, where he was reported in critical condition but expected to survive. Investigators believe the bicyclist may have failed to stop for a red light. No further reports were available.
Accidents such as this, and the type of injuries suffered, are not at all unusual nowadays. We can expect to hear about more of the same in the coming months as e-bikes are now seemingly everywhere.
“E-bikes are the current darling of urban mobility,” reports Bloomberg’s David Zipper. “The e-bike market is exploding, posting an annual growth rate of 240% in the U.S., according to the market research firm NPD Group.”
As I reported a couple of weeks ago, the National Safety Council confirms that the pandemic has made U.S. drivers more reckless, more likely to speed, to drink alcohol or use drugs, or drive distracted. American Safety Council research shows that more than half of traffic fatalities today (66%) are caused by aggressive driving. Now add to the mix more and more e-bikes spilling out onto America’s roadways, many piloted by school-age kids, and you have a prescription for some potentially tragic results. To make matters worse, this massive influx of e-bikes is occurring in a national regulatory landscape that is a mess, lacking consistent standards and oversight.
Says Noa Banayan, the director of federal affairs for PeopleforBikes, “How a vehicle like that is regulated is up to the states, and there aren’t yet any clear trends on how they are addressing these products.” It has also been left up to cities to decide where they can be ridden. To date, the response has been all over the map. In hilly San Francisco, e-bikes are wildly popular with parents, according to cyberparent.com. On the other hand, in New York, children under 16 can’t operate or ride along on an e-bike, they write.
We should have seen this need to impose controls coming long ago. Today’s popular e-bike models have been around since the 1990s. “It has been predicted that by the year 2023, approximately 40 million e-bikes will be in use around the world,” says cyberparent.com, adding, “Unfortunately, with an increase in the number of e-bikes will come an increase in e-bike accidents.”
Reports Reuters, emergency department data collected from 2000 to 2017 by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System shows that “powered bikes carry a higher risk of severe injuries than traditional bicycles” and a different pattern of injury risks compared with other powered two-wheeled vehicles such as scooters. Their study shows that people who ride e-bikes are more likely to be hospitalized after a crash and are more likely to suffer internal injuries.
The journal Injury Prevention believes e-bike riders don’t always mix well with other users of designated lanes and pathways. They report that e-bike injuries were “more than three times as likely to involve a collision with a pedestrian than either scooter or traditional bike injuries.”
In California’s Orange County, “a surge in e-bike accidents and injuries in the past year has prompted area hospitals, police agencies and city halls to beef up community outreach to educate riders about the dangers of the fast-moving bikes that have surged in popularity,” according to The Register’s Laylan Connelly.
“Back in our day, we rode our bikes in the neighborhood and we were OK,” the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s Virgil Asuncion tells a community forum of parents. “But it’s a whole different world now.”
Adds Dr. Tetsuya Takeuchi, Mission Viejo Providence Mission Hospital’s trauma medical director, “One difference is the type of injuries that can happen while on the electric bikes, which are often more consistent with motorcycle injuries than traditional bikes.”
According to Takeuchi, 2020 was when the hospital started seeing a “statistically significant” rise in e-bike accidents, which prompted administrators to start keeping statistics on such injuries.
“Many times, the injured are classified as ‘trauma patients,'” he says, which indicates the patient potentially suffered life-threatening injuries that needed urgent medical attention. He also notes that these injuries have continued to climb in 2021 and have yet to slow down. “The lack of helmet wearing is also a trend seen in the hospital,” he adds.
“Motorcycles and mopeds are often subject to an array of laws and restrictions that e-bikes aren’t,” writes Zipper, “such as license plate mandates, helmet requirements, and special driver’s licenses.” Within this environment of lax rules, manufacturers are “pushing the envelope on a bike’s speed and power.” As an example, a leading Dutch e-bike maker recently unveiled a powerful new model with a top speed of 37 mph to be introduced in this country sometime near the end of 2022. To get a sense of how fast that is, “37 mph exceeds the all-time record for average speed in a Tour de France time trial,” Zipper says. In addition, there is already a device on the market that is said to be capable of hacking “an e-bike’s sensors to boost speed by 50%.”
“Whatever governments decide to do, they would be wise to get moving. High-speed e-bikes and other category-blurring electric vehicles are already available, and their numbers will only grow,” cautions Zipper.
Any changes that come are guaranteed to materialize far behind the current and growing threat to safety on our roadways and now even walkways. As for schoolkids on e-bikes, parents can and should take every precaution to protect them, to get them to wear a helmet and obey traffic laws. Even so, despite precautions, risks remain.