Electric bikes (e-bikes) have become an attractive option for many Chinese, as they are cheap to buy and easy to use. Bloomberg reports that an estimated “200 million Chinese now use e-bikes, a 1,000-fold increase from 15 years ago.” Likely a good thing for Chinese city air quality, but a potentially bad thing for traffic safety.
E-bikes are likely “involved in crashes at a very high level” said Brent Powis, a road safety consultant for the World Health Organization. Bloomberg notes the bikes are “occasionally mowing down pedestrians or taking a hit themselves.”
“This style of transportation is arguably a solution to the world’s mobility problems and China is the testing ground,” Powis told Bloomberg “Now we have to look at how to prevent this public health opportunity from becoming a public health risk.”
E-bikes can get up to speeds of 25 miles per hour, but are treated like conventional bicycles by Chinese traffic police — meaning they are allowed to weave in and out of traffic and aren’t required to pass any driving tests.
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The Chinese government does not keep statistics on nation-wide accidents involving e-bikes, but a 2010 to 2011 study by Peking University found that e-bikes were involved in 57 percent of all non-fatal road accidents in a rural Suzhou hospital. Thirty-six percent of the injured riders sustained traumatic brain injuries.
“When you’re going at the speeds the e-bikes do, it’s not hard to see why accidents happen,” Jonathan Bental, an Israeli living in Beijing who was in an e-bike accident two years ago, told Bloomberg.
E-bikes became a homegrown industry in China because of governmental policies that forced more people into the cities and restricted the use of automobiles. Now that Chinese workers are seeing their incomes rise due to some free-market reforms, they are buying e-bikes to become more mobile.
Chinese people are even buying upgrades for their e-bikes, making their electric motors faster and more powerful. Think Fast and Furious, but on electric bikes — Vin Diesel and Paul Walker hijacking oil tankers on 25 mile per hour bikes instead of juiced-up hot rods.
But e-bikes seem to be lowering emissions while contributing to traffic accidents and fatalities — the number one killer of young people in China. The World Bank estimates that China had 282,576 deaths from road injuries in 2010.
“E-bikers often drive on sidewalks, almost creeping up on unsuspecting pedestrians,” Bloomberg notes. “On a recent, crisp evening, a Bloomberg News reporter encountered five on a walk through a narrow hutong, as Beijing’s old alleyways are called.”
“Helmets, driving lessons, road safety rules — how they tackle this can define the direction of green transportation around the world,” Powis said.
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