Are e-bikes inherently more dangerous? Or are their older riders inherently more fragile?
The popularity of e-bikes is soaring, especially among aging baby boomers and seniors. Unfortunately, the rate of injury and death among older users of e-bikes is apparently increasing, too.
According to Daniel Boffey in the Guardian, of the 79 people killed on e-bikes in the Netherlands in the last three years, 87 percent were over the age of 60. Egbert-Jan van Hasselt, head of the police safety unit, tells a Dutch paper:
People are staying mobile for longer and are more likely to go for an e-bike. In itself, that’s nice because it’s healthy. But unfortunately some of the elderly lack the ability. [It is] not a normal bike....It would be good if more people follow a course [took a course in how to ride]. Because the e-bike is not a regular bike. It gives you an extra boost, and that sometimes happens unexpectedly. As a result, you can tremble, swing and sometimes even fall.
That e-bikes are more dangerous than regular bikes is not news; Mikael Colville-Andersen wrote about it a few years ago and has just updated his post, noting that “20% of e-bike crashes send the cyclist into intensive care. Only 6% of crashes on normal bikes end up in intensive.”- the injuries from crashes while riding e-bikes are usually more serious than those for regular bikes.
E-bikes can be harder to handle. When I was in Copenhagen I spent some time on their shared e-bikes and was shocked at how I really could not go as slow as I wanted, that the motor would kick in with a bang, either on or off, not nearly as smooth as other Pedelecs I have ridden. These were terrible bikes, used mostly by tourists, and I would be surprised if there weren’t lots of crashes. They are faster and heavier than regular bikes, with real momentum.
The great thing about e-bikes is that they are great for keeping older people on bikes. As Steve Appleton told Derek in his post, Let's talk electric bikes: Q&A with an e-bike retailer:
The benefits of e-bikes are amazing. You get all the benefits of regular bicycle riding – exercise, cardiovascular, the mental health aspects of getting out in the world and being physical. Everything that you can imagine is beneficial of regular bikes is also true for e-bikes, because in their essence, e-bikes are bicycles. The benefits go beyond just regular cycling benefits, because e-bikes are helping people get back into riding again.
Look at Joe Goodwill's site, Electric Bike Blog, and you will see testimonials from boomers and seniors who say they regained their health with electric bikes; they are life-savers, and people shouldn't be scared off them. As Joe writes,
...most people who cycle on electric bikes are able to improve the quality of their remaining years, because as science tells us conclusively, exercise is a miracle cure for most diseases. Electric bikes make cycling possible for many who would otherwise have to quit. They don’t have to exert themselves as much on e-bikes as on regular bikes, and the fear of hills is removed. But they can still get as much or as little exercise as they want. Plus, they get to enjoy the sheer fun of cycling!
The problem is that, as you get older, falls are more deadly. Bones break more easily. Balance, hearing and eyesight are not what they were. So in some ways the statistics are not surprising. People over 60 generally die at a higher rate from just about anything. A significant number of older pedestrians trip and fall while walking (including my late mom), a much higher proportion than the general population, and they die at a much higher rate when hit by cars (as shown in the above graph), but that doesn’t mean we advise that older people stop walking; it means that we demand that the infrastructure be improved -- in this case, better, wider bike lanes separating cyclists from traffic. The health benefits of getting exercise outweigh the risk.
As e-bikes gain in popularity in North America, the number of injuries and deaths among older riders will no doubt increase there too. In the European Union, e-bikes have motors that are 250 watt tops with a maximum speed of 15.5 MPH, and the motors can only assist, not replace pedalling, which is why they don't have throttles. Perhaps this news should be a wakeup call for regulators in America, where motors can be up to 750 watts with a top speed of 20 MPH, and some states have even higher limits.
If e-bikes are going to play nice with regular bikes, they should be a bike with a little motor, not a big scooter with little pedals.
UPDATE: This post was revised thanks to info from a commenter about American regulations.