E-bikes: sustainable and speedy, but are they safe?

Ryan Boyd
E-bikes: sustainable and speedy, but are they safe?

Although they may seem quite new and niche, there are actually over 200 million electric bikes around the world today.

While most are in Asia, the Spinoff reported that according to Statistics NZ we imported around 3,000 e-bikes in 2014, which increased to 20,000 in 2017.

This trend is likely to continue, and the Electric Bikes Worldwide Report predicts world-wide sales will pass 2 billion by 2050.

And with more silent and speedy bikes on the road, are they causing more accidents? How fast do they actually go? And what exactly are the rules you need to follow?


What are the dangers?

The Netherlands, which has a significant cycling culture, made headlines in 2017 when they had more cycling deaths than car deaths (206 vs 201). A quarter of these deaths were on e-bikes, and two-thirds were people over 65.

However, despite this, the growing total number of cyclists in the Netherlands (who cycle more than any other nation) means that proportionally cycling is actually getting safer.

Peter van der Knaap, director of the Netherlands’ Institute for Road Safety Research (SWOV), says that if you consider the growing distance covered by cycles each year and compare it to the number of deaths and injuries, “then you must conclude that cycling is in fact becoming safer”.

Back in New Zealand, in 2017/2018 there were 135 ACC claims for accidents involving e-bikes, compared with 29,661 on standard bicycles.

The majority of these were caused by “Loss Balance/Personal Control” (78), which is a similar ratio of accidents to push bikes (58% vs 62%).

One area where there were more injuries in e-bikes is in the “Lifting/Carrying/Strain” category (9% vs 3%), likely due to the significant weight difference.

This is an area that Peter points out as being an increased threat to the over-65s who made up such a high proportion of fatalities in the Netherlands.

'We should not underestimate how many accidents happen among the elderly when getting on and off an e-bike,” he told the de Volkskrant paper.

“Such a bicycle is heavier than a regular one, (and) some older people do not take into account that their own physical possibilities are reduced.”


How much faster are they?

An experiment conducted by the NZ Herald showed that a commute from New Lynn in West Auckland to the city’s CBD was 15 minutes faster on an e-bike than a push bike, which itself was already significantly faster than car, train or bus.    

Most e-bikes will cruise along at 20-25km/hr, even up hills, and while most countries have a speed limit for “pedelec” bikes, in New Zealand there is currently no speed limit other than the one signalled on public roads that cars follow. Instead the max battery power is 300W.

However, the NZTA recommends e-bikes cut out at a maximum speed of 25km/hr, which is the speed limit in Europe.


Do you need a licence?

There are two main types of e-bikes: throttle and pedal-assist. For casual riders the pedal-assist is more likely what you’ll be riding, for which you do not need a licence.

The NZTA define these (also known as “pedelec”) as having, “an auxiliary electric motor with a maximum power not exceeding 300W and is designed to be primarily propelled by the muscular energy of the rider”.

However, if you do not need to pedal on the bike and only use a throttle, it will be classed as a motor vehicle, and “require registration, an appropriate driver’s licence and must meet appropriate equipment and safety standards for the appropriate class of vehicle.”


How far will they go?

A question everyone wants to know, but one not so simple to answer.

If you want to get very specific, there’s a handy calculator that takes into account all the variables, such as your weight, battery size, riding mode, terrain, and wind resistance.

But the short answer is: quite far. Easily enough for most people to commute to work and back home again without needing a charge in between.

Talk to a professional when buying a bike to make sure you get one that is right for your purpose.

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