On a Thursday evening in late June, Clarissa Champlain learned that her 15-year-old son Brodee had been in a terrible crash, the latest teenage victim of an e-bike accident.
He had driven from home for ball practice. The e-bike, a model made by Rad Power, had a top speed of 20 miles per hour, but his route took him on a busy road with a 55 miles per hour limit. While turning left, he was clipped by a Nissan van and thrown violently.
Mrs. Champlain rushed to the hospital and was taken to Brodee’s room. She could see the chinstrap marks on his bike helmet. “I grabbed his head and kissed him,” she recalled. “But there was no back of the head. It wasn’t the skull, it was just mush.”
Three days later, another teenage boy was taken to the same hospital after the e-bike he was riding collided with a car, leaving him sprawled under a BMW, injured but alive. In the days that followed, the city of Encinitas, where both incidents occurred, declared a state of emergency for e-bike safety.
The e-bike industry is booming, but the summer of 2023 has brought sharp questions about how safe e-bikes are, especially for teenagers. Many e-bikes can exceed the 20 mph speed limit legal for teenagers in most states; some can go 70 miles per hour. But even when riding at legal speeds, there are risks, especially for young, inexperienced riders who merge into traffic with cars.
“The speed they’re going is too fast for sidewalks, but it’s too slow to be in traffic,” said Jeremy Collis, a sergeant at the North Coastal Station of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office, which is investigating Brodee’s crash.
For some policy makers and law enforcement officials, the technology has far outstripped existing laws, regulations and security guidelines. Police and officials charge that some companies appear to be deliberately selling products that can easily bypass speed limits and put young riders at risk.
“It’s not like a bicycle,” Sergeant Collis said. “But the laws treat it like any bike.”
Two federal agencies, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said they were evaluating “how best to monitor the safety of e-bikes,” according to a statement from the highway safety agency.
Local communities have started to warn their residents about the dangers of e-bikes. In June, the Bend, Ore., police department ran a public service campaign to educate the public about the e-bike laws that were frequently broken there. Days later, a 15-year-old boy was killed when the e-bike he was riding was hit by a van.
Bend police spokeswoman Sheila Miller, who helped develop the public service campaign, stressed that not everything that calls itself an e-bike qualifies as such, or is safe or legal for minors. Under Oregon law, which is more restrictive than those in most states, a person must be at least 16 years old to ride an e-bike of any kind.
“Parents, don’t buy these bikes for kids when they’re not legally allowed to ride them,” Ms. Miller. “And if you own an e-bike, make sure everyone who uses them knows the rules of the road.”
Thriving industry, modest regulation
The typical e-bike has working pedals as well as a motor that is recharged by an electrical cord; the pedals and motor can be used individually or simultaneously. Unlike an internal combustion engine, an electric motor can accelerate instantly, which makes electric bikes appealing to ride.
E-bikes are also seen as critical to moving the transportation system away from emissions-spewing cars and the congestion they create, said Rachel Hultin, director of policy and government affairs for Bicycle Colorado, a nonprofit bicycle safety and policy advocacy group. Electric bicycles and electric scooters are part of the so-called micromobility movement, which propels commuters and other people short distances across crowded spaces.
The number of e-bikes sold is unclear because, like regular bikes, they do not need to be registered with the government. (Cars, motorcycles, and mopeds must be registered through the state Department of Motor Vehicles.) Many are sold directly to consumers over the Internet, rather than through brick-and-mortar dealers who often track sales. John MacArthur, an e-bike industry expert with the Transportation Research and Education Center at Portland State University, estimated that about one million e-bikes would be sold in the United States this year.
The minimal regulation around e-bikes is a selling point for the industry. Super73, an Irvine, California company that makes popular models, advertises on its website: “RIDING WITHOUT LIMITATIONS. No license, registration or insurance required.”
“It’s one of those very unique categories of vehicles that there really isn’t any kind of burdensome regulation,” company co-founder LeGrand Crewse said in an interview, noting that helmet requirements were also modest, depending on the state and rider’s age.
Law enforcement officials have begun to express concern about the minimal training required of teenage e-bike owners and about their behavior. Motorists ages 16 to 19 are three times as likely to be killed in an accident as drivers aged 20 or older, and cyclists ages 10 to 24 have the highest rate of emergency room visits for crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some states have begun raising education requirements for young drivers, including adding graduated licensing programs that require extended hours of supervised driving, restrict night driving, or limit the number or age of passengers.
The California legislature is considering a bill that would prohibit e-bike use by persons under 12 and “state the Legislature’s intent to create an e-bike licensing program with an online written test and a state-issued photo identification for those individuals without a valid driver’s license.”
“I know the e-bike situation is evolving,” said Sergeant Collis of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office. “But personally, with all these bikes, you should at least have a permit or a license to ride them at the speed they’re going.”
As a transport solution, e-bikes seem promising. “I’m really positive about middle and high school students being able to use e-bikes,” said Ms. Hultin from Bicycle Colorado. She noted that e-bikes offered children and busy families more transportation options at a lower cost. But she worried the vehicles could lead to an unsafe mix of untrained e-bikers and unwitting motorists.
That problem, said Ms. Hultin, was exacerbated by “an algae bloom of non-compliant e-bikes.” She was referring to products on the market that call themselves e-bikes but are not, either because they can go faster than allowed by law or because, once purchased, they can be modified to do so.
One vehicle that has attracted attention for its speed is made by Sur-Ron, whose products have been involved in several deaths recently. In June in Cardiff, Wales, two boys on a Sur-ron bike died in a crash while being followed by police; days earlier a boy riding a Sur-ron in Greater Manchester had died after colliding with an ambulance.
In its marketing material, Sur-ron describes one model, the Light Bee Electric Bike, as “easy to maneuver like a bicycle with the torque and power of an off-road motorcycle.” Its operating instructions warn the owner to “obey the traffic rules and at the safe speed (the top speed of this electric vehicle is 20 km/h).”
But the speed limit — equivalent to about 12 mph — can be removed by simply cutting a wire, a procedure widely seen in online videos that law enforcement officials said apparently existed.
“There are all kinds of videos on how to jailbreak your Sur-ron,” said Capt. Christopher McDonald of the Sheriff’s Department in Orange County, California, where e-bike accidents and injuries are on the rise. With the speed line clipped, the vehicle can approach 70 miles per hour, he said. Several requests for comment were sent through Sur-ron’s website but did not receive a response.
Matt Moore, the general counsel for PeopleForBikes, the main bicycle and e-bike trade group, said he was concerned about products like the Sur-rons. “Some products are sold as apparently compatible but can be easily modified by the user with knowledge and presumably the manufacturer’s blessing,” he said. “Unfortunately, there appears to be a lack of resources at the federal level to investigate and address e-mobility products that may actually be motor vehicles.”
Tragedy in Encinitas
The day after Brodee entered the hospital, his family sat by his bedside. They played his favorite music, including Kendrick Lamar and the early Wu-Tang Clan. “I read to him for hours,” his mother said. “We wanted to wake his brain.”
Three days later, with Brodee clinging to life, Niko Sougias, the owner of Charlie’s Electric Bike, a popular e-bike shop in town, was driving in Encinitas on Highway 101 when he saw two teenage boys riding Sur-Rons in the opposite direction .
“They did wheelies,” said Mr. Sougia’s. He has grown concerned about the e-bike industry, he said, and doesn’t sell many models popular with teenagers.
His route that Saturday followed the boys’ path on Sur-rons. Moments later, after a turn, Mr Sougias saw that one of the Sur-Ron drivers had collided with an SUV, had been thrown from his bike and was under a BMW.
According to the police, the Sur-ron rider had been seen driving recklessly and was found guilty. “He was lucky to escape with his life,” said Mr. Sougia’s.
Mrs. Champlain was at the hospital with Brodee when the boy who had been riding Sur-ron was brought in. Paramedics stopped by Brodee’s room to check in. “I can’t believe I’m here again for this,” she said one of them had told her; the same paramedic had brought Brodee in by ambulance.
Hours later, Brodee was pronounced dead. He was a beloved young man with a bright future ahead of him. He was fluent in Spanish and had a university-level knowledge of Japanese; he could deadlift 300 pounds and in 2020 was named student of the year at his high school. “I had so many people call me to tell me they had lost their best friend,” his mother said.
Mrs. Champlain said witnesses told her her son “did everything right,” including signaling her to turn left.
“There should be more training for drivers with the change that has happened,” she said. “I had never seen an electric bike on the road until three years ago. Now I see hundreds.”
“They are treated as bicycles when they are not. They are not equal.”