As e-bikes become more popular, regulators have been unable to keep up with the rapidly evolving market. Safety and law enforcement agencies are finding that many models marketed to children and young people exceed legal speed limits and are more like motor vehicles that require a driver's license and registration to operate.
Right now, the power to decide what young people can and cannot drive rests with a non-governmental authority: parents. Across the country, they express a mixture of enthusiasm, regret and uncertainty about the trendy means of transport.
Some parents who initially embraced e-bikes now say their enthusiasm waned after news of recent accidents involving teenagers.
“It was a godsend at first,” said Julie Wood, whose daughter Sawyer, 14, got an e-bike last spring. “She's a teenager — she wants to go anywhere.”
For Ms. Wood of Boulder, Colorado, that meant she had to spend less time driving Sawyer. But she had a firm rule that Sawyer had to wear a helmet.
In early August, Sawyer fell while riding her e-bike without a helmet. For fear of disciplinary consequences, she did not tell her mother, although she suffered from headaches and nausea and did not want to get up. A few days after the accident, she had a seizure and had emergency brain surgery for a fractured skull and bleeding in the brain. She is expected to recover.
Her mother is now reconsidering how society should deal with technology. “These kids don't have a driver's license,” Ms. Wood said. “As much as you would like to believe they ride bikes, 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 electric 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 willing to make the mental judgments that you have to make. “
The questions surrounding e-bikes fit neatly into a modern theme where powerful technologies like cellphones and vape pens are coming to market and being sold direct to consumers without extensive research into behavioral and safety implications.
For e-bikes, some models can be reprogrammed to exceed the 20 mph speed limit for riders under the age of 16; they therefore fall into the category of motor vehicles. The federal government has not yet figured out how best to regulate them.
That's perfectly fine with some parents saying that the decision on whether a child can ride an e-bike should be made by the individual family and should be based on a teenager's ability to handle the roads and speeds.
“I know my son and I know his athletic ability,” said a Southern California mother, who asked not to use her name because she felt her views might draw criticism. Her son has two e-bikes, a Super73 which he got for his 13th birthday and a Talaria which he got for his 14th birthday. “He lives on two wheels,” his mother said, adding that the e-bikes are a source of fun for him.
The teenager has rebuilt each bike to go faster than the law allows; In fact, the Talaria can reach a speed of 70 miles per hour. His mother gave him her blessing, she said, even helping him cut a wire that overrides the cruise control, which normally limits the vehicle to 20 miles per hour.
She assumed that the companies had designed the bikes in such a way that the speed limits could be lifted. “They want you to take responsibility for it,” she said, “because they don't want to be held responsible for making a bike that goes 55 miles an hour where a kid goes right into the concrete.”
Gari Hewitt, a nurse in the area and a friend of the mother's, expressed more caution about e-bikes. Not long ago, she saw a 12-year-old boy lying unconscious on the street. He was riding a Super73 when he hit a rock and “went over the handlebars,” said Ms. Hewitt, who works as a nurse in a pediatric trauma unit. She examined the boy before he was taken to the hospital; She later learned that he had a lung injury, among other things.
Ms. Hewitt has two teenagers of her own, a 15-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy. Everyone got an e-bike for Christmas. “How do you impress them when they're that age?” asked Ms. Hewitt. “We only have a few more years to wow them.”
When it came to e-bikes, there were rules: always wear a helmet, don't go faster than 20 miles per hour, and never ride at night. The hospital where she works considers any accident traveling at 20 miles per hour or more “a traumatic activation,” she said.
“But you could also hurt yourself on a bike,” she said. “Everything brings responsibility.”