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Are Electric Bikes (E-Bikes) Safe?


Biking offers kids fun, freedom and great exercise. But, the standard bikes that we grew up with are now being replaced by electric bikes (e-bikes) of all sizes and speeds.

Over the past couple of years, we have seen more kids riding e-bikes on sidewalks, paths and in the street. But how do you know if your child is ready to ride an e-bike? The first step is to educate yourself about e-bikes.

What is an E-bike?
E-bikes look like regular bicycles. However, they include an electric motor and a rechargeable battery. E-bikes are also faster, heavier and have two (or three) wheels and pedals.

Classes of E-Bikes
Class 1: The bike motor only works when the rider is pedaling and it can reach speeds up to 20 mph.

Class 2: The e-bike includes a throttle that allows the rider to use the bike motor without pedaling or with pedaling. It can reach speeds up to 20 mph.

Class 3: The e-bike may or may not have a throttle but can reach speeds up to 28 mph or more.

Are E-Bikes Regulated?
Even though they have motors, e-bikes are not regulated as motor vehicles by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Instead, they are regulated by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), just like any other bicycle. No license is required to operate an e-bike. And, there is no age limit below which a child should not ride an electric bike.

How Safe are E-bikes?
E-bikes require different skills, as compared with riding traditional bicycles. E-bikes also call for extra training. There are obviously risks associated with any activity that involves speed, traffic, pedestrians, and varying road and trail conditions. And e-bikes are no exception.

Physicians, police officers and local fire departments can attest to mounting safety concerns regarding e-bikes. My colleagues in our local emergency rooms and trauma centers are seeing more and more children incurring serious injuries as a result of operating an e-bike. The Irvine Police Department (IPD) continues to warn the community about the increase in e-bike accidents, and fire departments report a growing threat of destructive and deadly fires from lithium-ion batteries in e-bikes.

Having encountered many e-bikers myself and listening to the experiences of my neighbors and colleagues, I addressed this issue in an article written for Healthychildren.org, which is a website powered by pediatricians from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Below are the main points I raised in the article:

  • E-bikes operate differently and require different skills and extra training compared to regular bikes. Just because your child can ride a bike does not mean that your child has the skills to operate an electric bike.
  • If teens are 16 years of age or older and have a learning permit or driver’s license, they can still benefit from instruction to help them ride an e-bike safely.
  • The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends that children aged 9 through 12 years should not operate any product that travels faster than 10 mph. (Class 1 and 2 e-bikes can reach speeds up to 20 mph; and Class 3 e-bikes are capable of speeds up to 28 mph.)
  • E-bike batteries can cause fires.
  • There is a higher risk of severe injury and death for riders of e-bikes than for regular bike users. In 2022, e-bikes were linked to 24,400 emergency department visits across the country.

Battery Issues
Here’s what we know about e-bike batteries: They use lithium-ion batteries, which if not used correctly or if damaged, can overheat, catch fire and burn extremely hot, giving off toxic gases — or even explode. Lithium-ion batteries need to stay within a temperature range of 32 to 105 degrees to operate safely. If you store your e-bike in your garage, be aware that during the summer months, our garages can quickly reach 105 degrees. Devices with lithium-ion batteries should not be left in the sunlight or in cars where they can easily overheat.

Over the past year, the Irvine Police Department (IPD) has been monitoring bike and e-bike collision data and making recommendations to the Irvine City Council. According to the IPD, the number of juveniles involved in e-bike collisions has continued to increase each year as more and more e-bikes are added to our streets.

What is the City Doing to Keep E-Bikers & Pedestrians Safe?
After two IPD presentations to the Irvine City Council, the Council passed an ordinance mandating speed limits for e-bikes along with other safety requirements. (To read more about Irvine’s new e-bike ordinance, click here.)

The Irvine Unified School District (IUSD) and Tustin Unified School District (TUSD) have partnered with IPD for mandatory registration and safety workshops for students who wish to travel to school on an e-bike.

Just as they learn to walk and bike safely, your children need to know how to safely operate an e-bike before they pedal off on their own.

Resource & Article Links

* Irvine Unified School District (IUSD) Mandatory E-Vehicle Safety and Registration Program
* California Highway Patrol Online Electric Bicycle Safety & Training
* Why Children Should Not Ride E-Scooters (article written by Ashley Morgan, MD, MS, FAAP)

Phyllis Agran, MD, MPH, FAAP
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