Corporate e-bikes – an accident waiting to happen?

A growing number of electric bikes are being used for business travel, particularly in Asia. But while it may seem a healthier, more wholesome approach for organisations, is safety being compromised? A key takeaway - ensure your employees understand the risks and have access to training. 

The urgent need for sustainable transportation has driven a surge in electric bike sales over the past decade, particularly in Asia. Increasingly, organisations globally are wondering whether to jump on the bandwagon when it comes to business travel. 

With no internal combustion engine, there are no fossil fuels being burned and increased cycle use will reduce traffic congestion. Financial incentives from governments are often available to sweeten the deal, whilst there are also savings in terms of running costs – e-bikes don’t require insurance, a certificate of roadworthiness or road tax. They won’t incur parking tickets either. But what’s often overlooked amid all these benefits is the safety aspect. 

Injuries and older riders

A comparison of injury patterns between conventional bicycle and e-bike accidents suggests that there is a higher incidence of ‘moderate’ traumatic brain injuries with e-bikes, despite the fact that e-bike riders are nearly twice as likely to wear a helmet compared with bicycle riders. The rate of pelvic injuries is also twice as high for e-bikers than cyclists.

The authors’ analysis of the data concludes that this is because an older demographic is taking to e-bikes: “What is striking is the higher age and the increased craniocerebral trauma of the e-bikers involved in accidents compared with cyclists. We speculate that older and untrained people who have a slower reaction time and less control over the e-bike could benefit from head protection or practical courses similar to motorcyclists.”

"What is striking is the higher age and the increased craniocerebral trauma of the e-bikers involved in accidents compared with cyclists."

Protection and training

Everyone knows that advertising can be misleading. But it can be beguiling all the same, as this example aimed at organisations shows: “Take the negatives out of cycling, removing traditional cycling barriers of hills, wind and long journey times. Employees can travel in their work clothes, and there is no longer the need to shower or change at the destination. And don’t forget the health benefits that help you achieve a happy, fit, stress-free workforce.”

This is a somewhat optimistic take. FortNine, a Canadian motorbike channel on YouTube, certainly takes issue with it. As presenter Ryan Kluftinger notes, when he rides his motorcycle, he wears Kevlar-lined jeans, an armoured jacket, gloves and boots, reflective panels and a full-face helmet built to resist huge impacts. “What do I wear for cycling?” he asks. “Stretchy pants, a bicycle helmet and happy thoughts.”

Car drivers tend to give motorcycles more respect on the road too, giving them space when they might try to squeeze past a cyclist. Kluftinger stops short of demanding the protective gear and mandatory tests that are expected and required of motorcyclists, but he certainly wants everyone to know the risks. 

It’s important to remember that the dangers of riding a motorcycle are well established. That’s why they come equipped with ABS, traction control, good tyres, tail lights, headlights with full/high beam, fog lights, mirrors and indicators – and you will typically need a licence to operate it following mandatory training. They also offer faster acceleration, which can get you out of trouble and are bulkier and more visible to other road users. 

So, all in all, we can conclude that riding an e-bike at a comparable speed to a motorcycle is inherently more dangerous.

Rider behaviour and the need for education

Another risk factor is rider behaviour. As researchers have noted: “The illegal occupation of motor vehicle lanes, over-speed cycling, red-light running, and illegal manned and reverse cycling are the main risky riding behaviours seen with e-bikes.”

The danger is that even though an e-bike can go as fast as a motorcycle, the mindset of the rider remains very much that of a cyclist. As such, they are more likely to display the less virtuous attributes of traditional cyclists. As Kluftinger says: “E-bike trauma in the US is 2.8 times more likely to require hospitalisation than with pedal bikes.”

One solution is education. Micah Toll is a mechanical engineer who specialises in e-bikes and electric vehicles. He suggests that e-bike riders take a motorcycle education course. As he explains: “Motorcycles usually require a specific motorcycle license, which usually entails practical instruction and testing. The knowledge and skills you gain are invaluable.

“It is hard for me to recommend that something like this be mandatory for e-bike riders, as that would remove one of the biggest advantages of e-bikes: that they are almost entirely free of cumbersome regulation. But I still highly recommend that e-bike riders take such classes. If nothing else, it’s a fun weekend of riding imparts important skills that you’ll have for life.”

What’s the answer? 

Our conclusion is that Health & Safety, HR and fleet managers have a large part to play in educating and training any employees using an e-bike for work. E-bike-specific safety policies will be required. 

As the authors of this Israeli study note: “During the past five years in Israel, there has been a dramatic increase in e-bike-related hospitalised casualties. In comparison with motorcyclists, there is a lower casualty rate but these casualties are more severely injured and utilise more hospital resources. 

“It is therefore of utmost importance to develop culturally appropriate interventions for these road users, including training, awareness and helmet enforcement.”

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