ELECTRIC BIKES: THE SILENT KILLER ON OUR STREETS
They’re green and oh so trendy. But last week electric bikes, which can hit speeds of 30mph, claimed their first British victim. And experts fear there’ll be many more
SHE didn’t see it coming – or hear it. At around five o’clock on an August afternoon, Sakine Cihan started crossing a road near her home in East London. She never made it to the other side as a 30-year-old man riding a bicycle crashed into her and knocked her violently to the ground. As Sakine, 56, lay seriously injured, cradled in the arms of passers-by, the cyclist fled the scene.
Sadly, on Wednesday, two weeks after the accident, it was announced that Mrs Cihan, a divorcee, had died.
The number of pedestrians killed or seriously hurt by cyclists in Britain has doubled in the past decade – there were three deaths and a further 457 injuries in 2016 – yet there is something that makes the tragic fate of Mrs Cihan unique.
For she is the first person in this country to have been hit and killed not by a normal bicycle, but by an electric bicycle.
Heavy, silent and extremely rapid, these new machines – known as e-bikes – are attracting growing controversy as sales in Britain soar.
According to critics, they are little more than unlicensed motorbikes, capable of being modified to reach speeds of 30mph or more, and a great danger to road users and pedestrians.
Billed as suitable for young and old alike, bikes powered by electric motors are taking the market by storm.
Halfords claimed that 2017 was the ‘year of the e-bike’ after a 220 per cent increase in sales, but there is every indication that this year’s sales will be greater still, with an e-bike bonanza expected at Christmas.
Costing upwards of £400, they are already reckoned to account for more than 12 per cent of the market. A further 2.5 million sales are expected over the coming 12 months.
Because they are equipped with both pedals and an electric motor capable of reaching 15.5mph, the bike effectively ‘help’ the rider, particularly moving away from a standing start or going uphill, allowing the cyclist to pedal as lightly as they choose. They can also be used as normal bikes, with the motor switched off, or ridden just like mopeds with no pedalling at all.
As with all new toys – particularly toys with green credentials – the famous are embracing them.
Adventurer and TV presenter Ben Fogle is a fan and Simon Cowell has reportedly splashed out on no fewer than seven e-bikes at a cost of almost £ 60,000 so that he can cycle to and from work. Presumably he has one for each day of the week. Olympic gold-medal winning track cyclist Victoria Pendleton has recently launched her own Pendleton Somerby Electric Bike, that sells for about £850.
But beneath the healthy sales projections, the smiling faces of celebrities, and claims of ecological benefits and congestion-slashing, the rise of the e-bike is potentially bad news for our streets, as the grieving family of MrsCih an knows all too well (although there is no suggestion that the man who crashed into her was breaking the law).
In countries such as China, the United States, Holland and Israel, where e-bikes have really taken hold, they have brought mayhem and a growing toll of injury and death.
New York has been forced to crack down on lawless riders. Mayor Bill de Blasio said: ‘What people have seen is absolutely unacceptable. Electronic bicycles going the wrong way down streets, weaving in and out of traffic, ignoring traffic signals, sometimes going up on sidewalks.
‘It’s one thing if a regular bicycle does that – that’s a problem – but an electronic bicycle, it’s so much faster. It creates a real danger.’
In Holland, one of the most cyclefriendly nations on Earth, e-bikes now make up a third of all sales, a trend accompanied by a near doubling of cycling fatalities over the past year. Experts say that, in part, the danger lies in the sheer weight of the new machines, which – with a battery, a motor and a sturdy frame to suit – can cause significant damage.
A new giant breed of electric delivery bikes now on the streets of Briti sh cities, equipped with heavy panniers at the front and the rear, looks particularly threatening.
But there are other problems, too, as it seems that pedestrians and other road users are confused by the high speeds reached by e-bikes, and by their rapid acceleration.
The profile of the riders is another risk factor, as many are drawn to electric bikes precisely because they are vulnerable – inexperienced or
‘They are so much faster – it creates a real danger’
elderly. In Holland, 38 men were killed riding electric bikes in 2017 – a staggering 31 of them over the age of 65.
Then there is an altogether more deadly risk. The Mail on Sunday has established that e-bikes can be modified to reach speeds of 30mph or more – potentially lethal for any pedestrians who happen to get in their way.
And the changes can be made with shocking ease. Simple-to-fit kits for ‘turbo-charging’ e-bikes are freely available for sale on the internet and in some shops on the high street. Plug-in attachments, or so-called dongles, trick the computerised speed sensors on the bike, and over-ride the software restricting them to 15.5mph – a speed limit laid down in law.
It is completely illegal to use these souped- up machines on British roads, of course, yet traders such as Martin Brown, the owner of the online e-bike shop, have no qualms about selling the equipment.
‘Are you fed up with the power cutting off when you reach the speed limit?’ he asks on his website. ‘We are the only UK suppliers of the Bosch tuning dongle that takes away the speed cut-off restriction and allows you to reach higher speeds on your Bosch 250w or 350w e-bike system.’
Presumably for legal reasons, Mr Brown then warns that the speed-tuning dongle is for ‘off road (private land) use only.’
Graphic designer Martin Northrop, himself a keen cyclist for more
‘He was bombing along at a staggering speed’
than 30 years, knows just how dangerous these modified electric bikes can be.
Jogging in Hyde Park in Central London last week, he only narrowly avoided colliding with an enthusiastic e- cyclist hurtling along the cycle track at, he estimates, 40mph.
‘The user was an older man with a little cap on his head and he was bombing along at a staggering speed,’ he says. ‘When he stopped before me, I said, “Crikey, you were belting along”, and he just grinned with obvious relish, as he told me that he’d had it “chipped” to go fast. Frankly, the speed it was going means that it’s no longer a bicycle but a motorised vehicle – and potentially very dangerous for people walking through the park. You don’t expect those kind of speeds.’
As if this were not enough, an invasion of American-style electric scooters is now adding to the chaos on our roads and pavements.
Sometimes called a Go-Ped, this is the motorised version of the footpowered scooters much-favoured by children and ‘ Yummy Mummies’. Elsewhere in the world, however, they are a cause of major concern, with injuries and deaths recorded in the United States, Holland, Israel and Singapore.
There have been protests in California, where competing hire and sharing schemes have left the pavements littered with dumped scooters, notably in San Francisco and Santa Monica. Kansas City has banned them from shopping areas.
On the East Coast, Boston’s Mayor Martin Walsh has threatened to impound them.
In Britain they are effectively illegal, banned from roads and pavements, as are Segways and hoverboards. Yet e- scooters are available both for sale and for longterm hire in high street stores and, while they are not cheap – they cost f r om £ 500 – again s al es are expected to soar this year.
Users and retailers say the police appear to be turning a blind eye so long as they are ridden safely.
‘It’s a grey area,’ explains Liam Lawless, who sells Israeli-designed Inokim scooters from a shop in Central London. ‘I’ve never known of anyone bei ng pull ed over by police.’
Whatever the law says, he commutes to work on his e- scooter, claiming: ‘It’s good for the planet, more practical in big cities than the electric bike, can be carried, and is easy to hop off, if needed.’
No wonder safety campaigners in Britain are warning about the dangers posed by ‘green’ takeover of roads and pavements – and are demanding safeguards.
The charity Cycling UK, for example, says a full review of road traffic offences is now required to p protect the public.
At present, in England, Scotland and Wales, you can ride an e-bike if you are just 14 and without the need for a licence of any kind.
This might seem an extraordinary state of affairs, bearing in mind that electric bikes in Northern Ireland require a moped licence and must be registered, taxed and insured.
Such rapid changes in technolo ogy are certainly increasing the p pressure to change the archaic l laws which govern – or fail to gove ern – cyclists in Britain.
The man who knocked down Saki ine Cihan in Dalston could only be a arrested for ‘furious driving’ under t the 1861 Offences Against the Pers son Act. He is yet to be charged.
This is the same ancient legislation that was used to prosecute and jail cyclist Charlie Alliston, whose illegal bike without brakes struck and killed Kim Briggs, 44, in London in February 2016.
Foll owing her death, and a campaign by her widower Matthew, the Government is pressing for a new, more effective offence of causing death or serious injury when cycling.
After all, whatever the ecological boasts of this trendy revolution, it seems the silent new machines can be just as deadly as the cars they are intended to replace.
STAR APPEAL: TV adventurer Ben Fogle rides his e-bike in London – there is no suggestion he breaks the law
CELEBRITY ENDORSEMENT: Model Rachel McCord on board a motorised scooter in California
MOWN DOWN: DOWN S Sakine ki Cih Cihan, 56, 6 died after being hit in East London