Famed former American Idol judge Simon Cowell ended up in the hospital in January 2022 with a broken arm, severe facial wounds, and a possible concussion after a crash on his e-bike. While he was able to head home later that day, this wasn’t his first time getting hurt while riding a motorized bicycle.
A year and a half earlier, Cowell broke his back while testing out his new e-bike in front of his family. One six-hour spinal surgery, a metal rod, and months of recovery later, the music industry legend decided to get back on a bike and ended up injured again. He now wears a wrist splint and struggles to play with his kids but insists that he won’t stop riding—but he will wear a helmet.
E-bikes soared in popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic due to the risk associated with the close quarters on public transportation. But these machines aren’t mere bicycles and they harness enough power to cause severe injuries including concussions, lacerations, and fractures.
Here’s what you need to know to keep yourself safe and make sure you’re following the laws when riding an electric bike.
The rise of e-bikes
In the past few years, the popularity of e-bikes has increased dramatically. Many attribute the sharp rise in urban areas to the Covid-19 pandemic. Once taking public transportation was no longer a safe way to get around, many turned to electric bikes.
E-bikes offer a mode of transport that is affordable, environmentally friendly, and time- and space-efficient, not to mention that it’s an enjoyable way to get around. The options to pedal and to use electronic assistance for hills or a speed boost makes cycling for exercise or recreation more accessible for those who struggle with chronic pain or illness.
Risks associated with e-bikes
Though there are considerable draws to using e-bikes for transportation and recreation, it doesn’t come without the risk of injury, as demonstrated by Cowell’s accident. Crashes affect not only the driver of the bike but also can lead to crashes with pedestrians and cars.
E-bike riders often disobey traffic laws—they ride on sidewalks and go the wrong way on streets, rather than following the regulations in place for motor vehicles. Riders also have been known to commit reckless acts when driving, including swerving between cars, running red lights, and, in Cowell’s case, failing to comply with safety precautions to protect themselves.
Failing to comply with traffic and safety laws puts the rider at risk for danger, including situations such as:
- Risk of internal injury
- Crashes with pedestrians, other e-bikers, and cars
- Increased risk of concussion and head injury
Additional dangers of e-biking include the risk of product defects for e-bike riders. Defective e-bikes can result in catastrophic injuries and accidents, and it makes them far more dangerous than their non-motorized counterparts. These defects can take several forms, such as battery fires, tire blowouts, controller and battery malfunctions, and throttle stickiness.
Since e-bikes only hit the mainstream a couple of years ago, no official safety warnings have yet been issued by any governmental or consumer advocate organization. However, medical experts including trauma surgeons have started to weigh in. They recommend taking the following precautions if you choose to ride a motorized bike:
- Complete a training course
- Always wear a helmet
- Follow the same road rules you would when driving a car
- Never ride while intoxicated
- Don’t ride on wet or icy surfaces
Several states have created laws regarding owning and operating e-bikes since their rise in popularity over the past few years, including New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
In New York, driving fully motorized electric bikes that can operate without requiring the rider to pedal is illegal in New York City, but pedal-assist electric bikes are not. Bikes can be ridden on the roads and in bike lanes, but they are prohibited from sidewalks.
In New Jersey, electric bikes may be ridden on both bicycle paths and roadways. Bikes must yield to all pedestrian traffic, and they must be ridden on the right side of the road.
For Pennsylvanian e-bikers, bikes can only be ridden on sidewalks and trails and are prohibited from public roadways.
The three states have similar laws about the registration and ownership of e-bikes. E-bikes are not subject to the same registration, licensing or insurance requirements as motor vehicles, and most adult riders are not required to wear helmets to ride them.