How safe is the e-bike?
Being a cycling nation, the Dutch have come up with creative bike solutions to deal with the problems of traffic congestion and pollution. On a Dutch cycle path you’ll see all types of bikes from the traditional oma fiets to the streamlined velomobile, from the bulky cargo bike to the speedy electric bike. But can our cycle paths cope with such a diverse fleet of bikes?
The rising number of accidents with e-bikes - some of which can go up to 45 km/h - is causing much concern. Is the e-bike a curse or a blessing? Find out in our series High speed on cycle paths. Part 1: How safe is the e-bike?
In recent years Holland has seen a growing number of cycling accidents, mostly involving only one cyclist. This increase is greatest among elderly cyclists. The e-bike, which allows elderly cyclists to ride more and faster too, is thought to be to blame.
“It’s ideal! We are in our eighties, but thanks to our e-bikes, we can still enjoy 45-km rides,” an elderly couple I came across last summer proudly told me. They were clearly enjoying their day out, like many other retirees. Since 2006 the demand for e-bikes has rocketed. There are now an estimated 1 million in Holland alone. Although e-bikes are used by all age groups, they are most popular with elderly cyclists - 10% of the over-60s now own an e-bike. It means that even if they do not feel quite as fit as they used to, they can continue cycling.
Asked how safe they feel cycling faster than they normally would, elderly cyclists generally indicate that going faster makes them feel more stable and therefore safer. But statistics suggest they are in fact less safe than they think. Every year 9,000 e-cyclists end up in A&E for treatment. A quarter of them have to stay in hospital due to their injuries. The most worrying increase involves the over-60s. In a report published in 2013 (in Dutch) [Update 2018: link no longer available] the Dutch Cycling Embassy investigates the cause of this increase.
Apparently elderly people using e-bikes contributes to traffic safety on the cycle paths, because they can now reach an average speed of 18,7 km/h, which fits in well with the average speed of other cyclists. Less overtaking means less chance of accidents. Unfortunately, this positive aspect is counteracted by the fact that seeing elderly people peddling slowly in an upright position does not suggest speed, which is misleading for other road users - they simply don’t expect them to be going as fast as they are.
But there is more bad news. Most e-bikes are much heavier (9 kg = 50%) than conventional bikes. This makes them more difficult to handle for cyclists who are physically more vulnerable (for women more so than for men). The main problem areas seem to be: keeping balance when getting on and off the bike, keeping control in bends and avoiding objects such as posts. These issues apply to all elderly cyclists, but the number of accidents increases when riding faster on a heavier e-bike. And when accidents happen, the injuries are greater. Unfortunately, as soon as you become physically more vulnerable - and therefore need the extra peddle power most - your e-bike might well land you in hospital.
As more and more e-cyclists take to the road, the important question is: what can be done to make e-cycling safer? Firstly, other road users need to become more aware of the fact that e-cyclists can be going faster than they expect. Getting used to a new type of cyclist is presumably just a matter of time. Secondly, the e-bike itself could be adapted more to the specific needs of elderly users by making them lighter and easier to handle. The first manufacturer to meet this demand is sure to have a winner!
Finally, elderly e-cyclists are encouraged to take e-bike lessons. Courses are now offered all over the country. The lessons include both theory and practice on a closed circuit. This way cyclists can get used to their e-bikes before they go out on their own.
Also see: Cycling lessons
In part 2 of the series High speed on cycle paths we look at the legal status of the e-bike. When is it classed as a bike and when does it become a moped?
High speed on cycle paths series: