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Sharp Health News

E-bikes: trendy, but safe?

Sept. 7, 2021

Electric bike

First, there were electric scooters. Then came hoverboards. And now, the latest motorized craze for kids and adults is e-bikes. An e-bike is an electric bicycle with an integrated, battery-operated motor that provides the rider with a little extra oomph, especially on hills.

Whether it was due to a pandemic-related desire to try something new or a wish to circumvent traffic by using bike lanes, e-bikes have recently become a hot item to have. According to ebicycles.com, it’s expected that the number of e-bikes in the world will total 300 million by 2023.

And while everyone loves a new trend, especially one that gets people moving — albeit with the aid of an engine — and out of the house, e-bikes have their fair share of critics. From complaints about the lack of rules and regulations to groups of youths riding dangerously, you just need to look on a neighborhood social media message board to see the list of e-bike-related grievances.

E-bike apprehensions
For Dr. Shahed Samadi, a family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group who works in urgent care, the top e-bike concerns are primarily safety-related.

“My greatest concern is the lack of guidelines in operating e-bikes,” he says. “Not all riders are aware of the rules, such as not riding on the sidewalk, not riding with added passengers or not riding without a helmet. This poses a potential injury risk to users.”

And the risks can be numerous. In a comparison of e-bikes to pedal bikes and powered scooters, a 2019 study found:

  • Persons injured using e-bikes were more likely to have internal injuries and require hospital admission than people using pedal bicycles.
  • E-bike-related injuries were also more than three times more likely to involve a collision with a pedestrian than either pedal bicycles or powered scooters.
  • While rates of pedal bicycle-related injuries have been decreasing, e-bike-related injuries have been increasing dramatically.

Dr. Samadi and colleagues at local urgent care centers and ERs have seen e-bike riders with everything from cuts and bruises to head injuries, concussions, extremity fractures and more. “Although they do not appear difficult to use, there are serious injuries that are related to e-bikes,” he said.

E-bike explanations
There are three classes of e-bikes. Each class has its own set of rules regarding who can ride them and where:

  • Class 1 — A Class 1 e-bike is equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and ceases to provide assistance once the e-bike reaches 20 mph.
  • Class 2 — A Class 2 e-bike is equipped with a motor that may be used exclusively to propel the bicycle, and is not capable of providing assistance once the e-bike reaches a top speed of 20 mph.
  • Class 3 — A Class 3 e-bike is equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and ceases to provide assistance once the e-bike reaches 28 mph.

In California, Class 1 and 2 e-bikes are allowed wherever regular bikes are allowed, unless a sign specifically prohibits them. There are different regulations for each trail, so riders should research and abide by trail-specific guidelines. Riders age 17 and under must always wear a helmet.

Class 3 e-bikes may not be used on trails or bike paths unless allowed by local authorities. However, they can be used in separate bike lanes or bikeways adjacent to the roadway. Class 3 e-bikes also require helmets for all ages and may not be operated by people under age 16.

Other important guidelines for cyclists to remember when on an e-bike:

  • Always ride in the same direction as traffic; if you are slower than traffic, you should ride in the bike lane.
  • Do not ride on sidewalks or in crosswalks, which are exclusively for pedestrians. Dismount and walk your e-bike in these areas.
  • Follow all traffic lights, signs and signals, which apply to all road users.
  • Any e-bike that can go over 28 mph is not street legal and should not be used on roads, sidewalks or multiuse trails.
  • Only allow passengers on e-bikes equipped to carry more than one rider. All passengers under age 18 must wear a helmet. And all passengers of any age must wear a helmet on Class 3 e-bikes.

“It is important for parents to educate their children about e-bike safety,” Dr. Samadi says. “This includes being aware of their surroundings and helmet use. It’s also a good reminder to prevent hazards to others by properly stationing e-bikes away from pathways, which includes returning rented e-bikes to their designated corrals.”

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