Someone’s child is going to die this summer on an East Hampton road. This is an inescapable assumption, based on the number of teens and pre-teens we see on small electric bikes. As if to assure that there will be at least serious head injuries, few if any of these children wear helmets of any kind. The fault for this is not with the kids themselves, but with the adults who provide them the fast e-bikes in the first place — as well as with law enforcement, which has had no discernible interest in protecting these most vulnerable citizens.
It is a baffling contradiction that organized youth football came to an end over fear of concussions here, but generally speaking no one cares about the greater risk that biking without a helmet represents. Young people’s still-forming brains are not suited to evaluating dangerous behavior. Bad decisions are frequent, such as accepting a ride as a passenger on an e-bike.
New York State updated its motor vehicle laws nearly three years ago to say where e-bikes and electric scooters may operate — and where they may not. We were surprised to learn that they are only permitted on streets and highways with a posted speed limit of 30 miles per hour or less. They are also not allowed on sidewalks, unless otherwise authorized by a local law. Statewide, bicyclists and their passengers, and in-line skaters, through age 13, must wear an approved helmet. Helmets are required by law if an e-bike can reach a speed of 25 miles per hour. The fastest electric bike now on the market can top out at 50 m.p.h., according to its maker. But, as in most states, they, too, are exempt from registration or licensing requirements. E-bikes that can go 28 miles per hour are widely available.
Make no mistake: E-bikes are dangerous to ride. In a study of emergency room visits from 2000 to 2017, researchers at New York University’s School of Medicine concluded that e-bike injuries were the most severe and most likely to require hospitalization. The number of e-bikes on the road has only grown in the more than five years since the study was done. And, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission has estimated emergency department visits due to e-bikes, e-scooters, and hover boards more than doubled from 2017 to 2021. A National Transportation Safety Board report said that “fatalities associated with e-bike ridership have also increased exponentially.” Injuries can more closely resemble those suffered by motorcycle riders than traditional pedal cyclists, including to the head and neck, traumatic brain injury, spinal fractures, chest injuries, and solid organ, or internal, injuries.
Fires from e-bike batteries are also becoming increasingly common.
E-bikes are inherently unsafe. Manufacturers themselves are unlikely to press for additional safety regulations, lest they diminish their multibillion-dollar, growing industry. So, in the continued absence of meaningful law enforcement, it is up to individual owners — and especially the parents and guardians of under-age riders — to make every effort to protect the riders, their passengers, and pedestrians alike.
Please, please, friends, just wear helmets, whether you’re on an e-bike, e-scooter, or even a regular bike. They are no cure-all, but at the moment they are the best option to reducing the risk of unspeakable tragedy.