With the rise of e-bikes, regulators have not kept up with the rapidly evolving market. Safety and law enforcement officials have noted that many models marketed to children and teenagers exceed legal speed limits and more closely resemble motor vehicles, which require a license and registration to operate.
Today, the power to decide what teenagers can or cannot ride rests with one nongovernmental authority: parents. Across the country, they express a mixture of enthusiasm, regret and uncertainty about the trendy mode of transportation.
Some parents who first embraced e-bikes now say their enthusiasm has been dampened by news of recent crashes involving teenagers.
“At first, it was a godsend,” said Julie Wood, whose daughter Sawyer, 14, got an e-bike this past spring. “He’s a teenager – he wants to go everywhere.”
For Ms. Wood of Boulder, Colo., that means less time carting Sawyer around in the car. But he had a firm rule that Sawyer wear a helmet.
In early August, Sawyer crashed while riding his e-bike without a helmet. He did not tell his mother, fearing disciplinary repercussions, even though he was experiencing headaches and nausea and did not want to get out of bed. A few days after the crash, he had a seizure and underwent emergency brain surgery for a skull fracture and a brain hemorrhage; he is expected to recover.
Her mother is now rethinking how society should handle technology. “These kids don’t have driver’s licenses,” said Ms. Wood. “As much as you want to believe they are riding a bike, it’s just different. They go really fast.”
After word of Sawyer’s accident spread around town, Scott Weiss, a Boulder resident and parent of two teenagers, decided to sell the family’s two e-bikes. “I want to keep you alive as long as possible,” he told his 14-year-old daughter. He said he would only sell the e-bikes to someone “college age” or older: “I don’t want to sell it to someone who isn’t ready to make the mental judgments you have to make.”
The questions surrounding e-bikes fit into a modern theme where powerful technologies, such as mobile phones and vape pens, enter the market and are sold directly to consumers, without much research available on impact on behavior and safety.
In the case of e-bikes, some models can be reprogrammed to exceed the 20-mile-per-hour speed limit permitted for riders under 16; therefore they fall under the category of motor vehicles. The federal government hasn’t figured out how best to fix them.
That’s fine with some parents who say the decision about whether to allow a child to ride an e-bike should be made by an individual family and based on whether a teenager can handle the roads and the speed.
“I know my son and I know his athletic ability,” said a mother in Southern California, who asked that her name not be used because she felt her views might draw criticism. His son has two e-bikes, a Super73 he got for his 13th birthday and a Talaria he got for his 14th birthday. “He lives on two wheels,” says his mother, adding that e-bikes are a source of joy for him.
The teenager modified each of the bikes to go faster than they were legally allowed to ride; in fact, Talaria can hit 70 miles per hour. His mother gave him her blessing, he said, and even helped him clip a wire that removes the speed “governor” that normally limits the car to 20 miles per hour.
He postulated that the companies designed the bikes to allow the speed caps to be removed. “They want you to be in charge of doing it,” he said, “because they don’t want to be responsible for making a bike that goes 55 miles an hour where a kid goes straight to the pavement.”
Gari Hewitt, a local nurse and friend of the mother, expressed more caution about e-bikes. Not long after, he saw a 12-year-old boy lying unconscious on the road. He was riding the Super73 when he hit a rock and “flied off the handlebars,” Ms. Hewitt, who works as a nurse in a pediatric trauma unit. He examined the child before sending him to the hospital; he later learned that he had a punctured lung, among other injuries.
Ms. Hewitt has two teenagers of his own, a 15-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy. Everyone received an e-bike for Christmas. “When they’re this age, how can you wow them?” Ms. asked Hewitt. “We only have two years to impress them.”
E-bikes come with rules: Always wear a helmet, don’t exceed 20 miles per hour, don’t ride at night. The hospital where he works considers any crash at speeds of 20 miles per hour or more to be “a trauma activation,” he said.
“But you can hurt yourself on a bike, too,” he said. “Everyone has a responsibility.”