Earlier this month, a 15-year-old boy riding an electric bike died following a collision with a vehicle at an intersection on Highway 20 in Bend. The teen was not wearing a helmet and wasn’t legally allowed to operate the e-bike since he was under 16 years of age. It was the first fatality involving an e-bike in Bend, according to a recent article in the Bend Bulletin, which also described concerns that some adolescents on e-bikes are not following the rules of the road and engaging in risky or illegal behaviors such as not wearing a helmet and texting while riding. At a city council meeting last Wednesday, Bend Mayor Melanie Kebler said the council would explore updating laws on bike safety, “including accounting for newer, faster e-bike models that have become more popular,” while taking additional actions to make cycling in the city safer. Michael Kohn, an environment and public lands reporter at the Bend Bulletin, and Jonathan Maus, editor and publisher of Bike Portland, join us to talk about this issue.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Earlier this month, a 15 year old boy riding an electric bike died after he was hit by a minivan at an intersection in Bend. It was the first fatality involving an e-bike in the city, according to a recent article in the Bend Bulletin. And it’s prompting city officials to consider new approaches to e-bike safety. Michael Kohn is an environment and public lands reporter at the Bend Bulletin who’s been writing about this issue. Jonathan Maus is the editor and publisher of Bike Portland. They both join me now. It’s good to have both of you on the show.
Jonathan Maus: Good to be here. Thanks.
Michael Kohn: Thank you, Dave. Good to be here.
Miller: Michael, first. What sparked your interest in writing about e-bikes and safety?
Kohn: About a month ago, I was riding along in Bend driving the car and I witnessed an e-bike crash just in front of me. I was the first on the scene and called 911 and it was two young girls that were riding an e-bike and crashed going downhill. One of them was hurt pretty badly. And after that incident, I was just thinking to myself, “Well, how often is this happening? How often are e-bike crashes occurring compared to regular pedal bike crashes?” So I started doing some research and contacted Bend Police and Bend Fire Department and the City of Bend and started writing a story about safety issues related to e-bikes. Then as I was writing this story, this incident occurred where this teenager was killed in an accident. And we published a story just after the weekend.
Miller: What can you tell us about the fatal collision that happened earlier this month?
Kohn: It was a 15 year old rider and he was riding without a helmet. He had a person riding behind him on the bike, on the little stand that sits in the back of the bike. And they were riding eastbound on the westbound side of Highway 20. It’s just a wide boulevard in eastern Bend. And a Dodge van pulled out onto the road from a side street and they just collided. The boy was taken to hospital and unfortunately he died. So that’s what happened there.
Miller: What have police said about what happened?
Kohn: Police did an investigation. They looked and they didn’t cite the driver or ticket the driver. They determined that this was just an unfortunate collision. It wasn’t like reckless driving or something like that. This was just an unfortunate collision at an intersection and the boy was riding on the sidewalk rather than the bike lane.
Miller: Have there been other serious collisions of any type at this particular site?
Kohn: At that particular site? No, but we do get quite a few bike crashes in Bend. So far this year, the paramedics have responded to about 40 bike crashes and a quarter of them were e-bikes. And they do happen just all over the place. There are an increased number of bike lanes being built around the city but there isn’t just one spot that’s a hot spot for accidents. They’re just occurring all over.
Miller: Michael, I want to hear more about what’s happening in Bend, politically as a result of this. But as I noted, Jonathan Maus is with us. He’s the editor and publisher of Bike Portland. Jonathan, for people who aren’t familiar with e-bikes, can you give us a sense just for the variety of vehicles that fall under this term?
Maus: Yeah, there’s a wide range of bikes that people are buying from both regular bike shops and e-bike only stores. Everything up to bikes that have a throttle. So bikes that you can actually just hit with your thumb on a little throttle and you don’t even have to pedal. And then there are more cargo/utility bikes that families are riding. Some of those have a throttle. A lot of those have what’s called a pedal assist electric motor. So you have to actually pedal in order to get any of the benefits of the motor. And there’s a wide range. There are people who are bolting on kits that they buy off the internet or wherever, onto just standard bikes and turning them into e-bikes.
So part of this is the technology itself and the types of bikes, I think, is far ahead of any type of regulation or how we look at integrating them into the system.
Miller: I should note that I ride an e-bike. That’s how I got here today. Just before we went live, you said that you got here on an e-bike as well. I’ve seen, anecdotally, a huge increase in e-bikes in the last five or six years. I remember talking about it on the show maybe 11 years ago. And it is, anecdotally, I’ll say a world of difference. Is there data to back that up?
Maus: Well, yeah, I mean, the sales rates of these things are just skyrocketing. I mean, it’s the best news in the bike industry that I can remember in terms of a boom. I mean, there’s a lot of unit sales happening with these things and they are flying off the shelves.
Miller: Do you think that riding an e-bike presents different safety issues than riding a traditional pedal bike?
Maus: Absolutely. They do. And again, it’s a range of types of bikes. So some of them are pedal assist only with a top speed of only 20 miles an hour. And then on the other end you have some with a throttle that can have a top speed of 28 [mph]. Others can go even faster ones that are, I guess, not technically legal to be bicycles, but that’s a different conversation. But I think one of the big things they pose in terms of safety issues is that e-bikes appeal to a lot of people who, let’s say, haven’t ridden a lot of bikes in their past. They’re maybe older folks or younger people or somebody whose e-bike is a great ticket to more freedom and more ability to ride bikes.
And it’s really exciting. They’re replacing their cars with them. But they can jump right in on an e-bike and go 18 miles an hour very easily, 20 miles an hour very easily, even more, 25 miles an hour very easily. And if you’re coming into it with a traditional bike, you’re probably not gonna be riding at those speeds for several years. You’re gonna progress your skill level and your street awareness up to the point where you feel comfortable going at those higher speeds. So to me one of the biggest things and there’s a lot, as folks probably understand, you have to understand closing speeds, how to process the danger of intersections and all the other things that come with it.
Miller: Meaning the speed at which you will arrive at a potential danger?
Maus: Yeah, all these fine skills your brain does as calculations. As you become a bicycle rider first you’re wobbling and then you get more confident. But you can literally hop on an e-bike as an adult and be going 25-28 [mph] which is, in some ways, very dangerous if you’re not ready to understand how the streets work from a bicycling perspective. It is a lot different than when you’re in your car or when you’re walking, obviously. So that, in and of itself, the ability for people to go higher speeds is problematic. I wouldn’t say problematic. It’s an issue.
And also the bikes themselves are built very heavy duty. Some of them have really large tires and they’re built more closely aligned to sort of mopeds or lightweight motorcycles. And so that also gives you, when you’re riding them, a bigger sense of strength and power. And I think that can translate into a certain type of riding, which may be less safe than if you had a bike with a smaller footprint.
Miller: Michael, you mentioned in both of the incidents, one that you witnessed that actually set you on the course of writing about this, and then in the fatal collision that happened soon after that, in both of those cases, there were two riders, two young riders or a rider and a passenger on the e-bikes. How common is that from what you see in Bend?
Kohn: Oh, it’s very common. I mean, you just need to stand out on a busy street for about five or 10 minutes and you’ll see young kids riding, multiple kids riding on a single bike. I see it basically every day. And a lot of times they’re not wearing helmets, they’re going in the wrong direction in the bike lane, they don’t have any protection. And you know, they’re just kids. Some of these are 10, 12, 13-year-old kids riding bikes as they do in their neighborhood. But now, all of a sudden, they’re in traffic and they’re on main roads where people are driving 30, 40 miles an hour. So that presents a real danger.
Miller: And I should note that, even just riding on an e-bike, if you’re below the age of 16, that alone is not legal in the state of Oregon, although enforcement is another issue.
Well, Michael, there was a Bend City Council meeting last Wednesday where the mayor and the council member said the city would be exploring ways to improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians in Bend. What exactly did they talk about?
Kohn: They’re discussing rules that can be changed statewide, not just locally, because it’s not just a local issue. And if they do want to implement change, that has to come from the state. So they’ve been discussing enforcement, [whether to] enforce the under-16 year old rule for riding these bikes, and lack of helmets, what should people be fined or ticketed if they’re not following the rules and really who’s responsible? Is it the kid riding the bike or their parents? So there’s a lot of issues to discuss, and they want to bring it to a state level so that it can be enforced locally.
Miller: Has there been an increase in collisions involving bicyclists in Bend that has gone along with the rise of e-bikes. What did you hear from paramedics or police officers or the fire department?
Kohn: Bend Fire is reporting a gradual increase year by year of overall bike accidents. So four or five years ago there were around 65-66 accidents that they reported. This is Bend Fire reporting accidents where they had to take someone to the ER or help them on the road. And then last year that number jumped up to around 100. And so far this year, we’re outpacing those numbers. So it’s probably gonna go past 100 this year. And that can be attributed to the overall increase in population in Bend. We do have more people living here. But my research showed that the percentage of bike accidents requiring paramedics is just growing faster than the population. So, yeah, there are, overall, more bike accidents requiring paramedics year over year.
Miller: Jonathan Maus, what about in Portland? This seems like really hard data to disaggregate. You have the total number of miles ridden or the changes in the number of riders, the experience of riders which you were getting to before, not to mention the behavior of drivers and the design of roads. How do you think about all of these factors together?
Maus: Well I think it’s a bit of a fool’s errand to try to focus on the enforcing and the regulation on the cycling side on this, partly because of what you said. The fact that the way the system responds to these things, is a system that is very, very centered around driving. The conversation I’ve seen in Bend doesn’t really talk about the driving and the role of the road. And if you look at the road where this person was killed, it’s essentially an urban highway. And the road that the driver was on, in my opinion, looks like an onramp. You can think of it that way. Yeah, there was a stop sign. We don’t know how much they slowed or not, but it’s a very wide radius. It’s basically made so that cars can maintain their speed and enter this fast road.
So I would worry that the focus gets too far on this moral panic about young people with these crazy new bicycles, these new fangled e-bikes. We have to recognize and sit back a little bit and look at the situation and think, “This is wonderful that all these kids are getting out on their own using bicycles, getting onto the streets, and that they’re not driving and they’re not staying at home in their basement playing video games.” [Instead] just think about the way we respond, enforcement regulation-wise with that in mind. How important it is that we get young people out on bicycles and not do too much that might discourage it.
Miller: Let me run something by you because what you were just saying reminds me a little bit of a paragraph from an article or essay that you published in Bike Portland, written by a woman who lives in Hood River, a contributor. And she wrote about a huge increase in teens using e-bikes. She called them “throttle kids”, a phrase that she uses lovingly.
She also wrote this:
“All it’s going to take to have this conversation explode is a teen
hitting a baby stroller or a senior citizen or, just as bad, hitting a
fixed object like a pole or parked car. Crashes like this unfortunately
happen with non electric bikes every year. But if it happens with
someone who is under age riding an e-bike, the media frenzy would
be harsh. We could see overly restrictive laws passed, police changing their enforcement stance and a general public backlash that sets bike advocacy back decades.”
Are you basically arguing that that’s where we are right now?
Maus: For the most part, yeah. And I think that’s why these moments are important to how the Bend City council responds. And I’m sure that there’s gonna be a statewide conversation at the legislature next session. And we’re gonna have to be really careful that it’s not some knee jerk, misguided attempt to regulate something just because it’s a bunch of adults who mostly drive, trying to say, “hey, you crazy kids in your little bicycles.” I’m aware that is, essentially, the dynamic of most people in Oregon. It’s this idea that we need to focus it in that way instead of looking at the bigger systemic issues.
Yes, we do have to be smarter and I think the use of these bikes by younger and younger kids is something that really does have to be addressed. And I think there are some ways we can do that. I worry though that it’s gonna be similar to what we’re seeing with electric scooters. You’re seeing some cities where they become very, very popular. It’s a really important way for people to get around that’s not driving and we need as many people to not drive as possible. But then, I think it’s in San Diego, they outlawed the electric scooters because they weren’t managing them well. And the easiest thing was to say we’re just gonna outlaw these new things because they’re the other thing that’s being used. And everybody drives. The center of the system is driving. Everything is set up that way. So we just need to be careful that we don’t allow that inertia of the driving centric bias that we have to make us make poor decisions on where we go from here.
Miller: If you’re essentially saying that you don’t want police-based or some kind of civic enforcement or even statewide enforcement, you don’t want that to quash this kind of non-car mobility. Then how do we get, say, a 12-year old who’s riding with another 12-year old, maybe going the wrong way, not wearing helmets. What is the way to get them to be safer for themselves and for others? If it’s not the police, what is it?
Maus: It worries me that we would think that police would be the only option or the first option. Think of how we would educate our kids to do anything else in our lives, any other kind of decision that they might have to make. You have parents, you have the manufacturers of the products, you have the place where they buy the product. If they buy it from a bike shop, there can be education there. You can certainly ramp up education in schools. Oregon has a whole Safe Routes to School Program that’s statewide funded. You can embed some of these electric bike issues into that curriculum. I also think our traffic engineers can do a good job of using the roads to sort of self educate.
The question I’m not hearing about the Bend fatality is why was that person on the sidewalk? Why was that young person on the sidewalk? From what I’ve seen in places like that in Portland, a lot of people ride on sidewalks, let’s say, like in East Portland for example, because it’s really unsafe to be on the road and they feel scared. But a lot of this conversation feels like we’re sort of blaming that child for making that choice when it’s that road that helps force that choice for them. So there are a lot of ways that we could increase the education without having to have that, like I said, knee jerk reaction to let’s just enforce some laws.
Miller: Michael, how much have you heard in Bend, the kind of talk that we just heard from Jonathan, about bigger questions of the built environment and better options for people who don’t want to use cars and want to be able to do that safely?
Kohn: Yeah, to that end, a few days after this accident, Bend City Council officially named their crosstown bike route, the Bend Bikeway. This is not something new. They just didn’t pick it up this week. It’s been in progress for a few years now. But it’s really starting to ramp up. They’re really starting to invest in it. And the idea is to create a north/south route and an east/west route across the city that’s gonna be completely free of traffic. A lot of it will go through park land or be divided away from the road to get a young kid across the city without having to worry about being in traffic. So that’s something that’s being ramped up and the city is spending a lot of money in general, not just on those routes, but all sorts of bike routes across the city to improve safety for all riders. And in addition the police have been doing a campaign recently to help kids understand e-bike rules and all bike rules. So there is a community effort now to increase awareness of bike safety.
Miller: I want to play you both a voicemail that we got from a listener in Eugene yesterday. Let’s have a listen:
“I contacted the city bicycle coordinator and the person in charge of the
Vision Zero program at the City of Eugene because I was concerned about the electric skateboards, the e-bikes and the scooters. The City of Eugene has been actively promoting those as good transportation. What they haven’t been promoting is safety and the rules of the road. And I’m just astonished to see no lights, no helmets, people traveling fast, coming out of alleyways and office sidewalks going 15, 20 miles an hour and skateboards that are motorized. I mean, as a driver, people aren’t really watching out and we had an electric skateboarder that was hit here about three weeks ago. And the city just seems to kind of say, ‘well, you know, they know the rules.’ And there’s no public outreach about the safety and yet they actively promote these.”
Jonathan, what would you like to see in terms of civic outreach? As she said, I get the sense that she is happy actually that active mobility is being prioritized in a city like Eugene, but she says that something is being missed?
Maus: Well, I think something’s always gonna be missed. This is an inherently very difficult problem to solve. Cities are not necessarily well equipped to market and make people change their minds on stuff like that. It’s just tough. At some point, people that use the roads have to look in the mirror and say, “I need to take care to be as safe as I can to make sure I don’t kill anyone or kill myself.” So I think the reaction, when we see a tragedy like this, is to sort of point fingers and try to blame someone for not doing enough education. We certainly could do a better job at education. Sure. But if we sit around and wait for cities to solve this education piece without taking personal responsibility for the vehicle that I’m gonna use, and make sure that I don’t ram it into someone and kill them or make a mistake, then we’re gonna be waiting a long time and have a lot of trouble with this stuff.
Miller: We also got a comment from a bicyclist named Cameron in Northeast Portland, who had some general anti e-bike statements of a kind I’ve seen before among people who, I think, are never going to be convinced that e-bikes are real, quote unquote “bikes”.
He also wrote this:
“I have viewed the trend toward e-bikes with some unease. My main concern is the speed differential between a traditional bike and the new electric motorbikes. My other concern is the use of these motorbikes on bike paths and bike lanes. These two elements together can create a dangerous situation for the rider of a traditional bike. Bike riders without motors ride at 12 to 14 mph on average and many are much slower. E-bikes can go 20 to 28 mph. E-bikes shouldn’t be allowed to go faster than 15 miles an hour on motorized power to match the speed of actual bikes or they should be required to stay off of designated bike paths and lanes.”
I’m curious here how much of a tension you see in 2023 between e-bike users and non e-bike users? This is something we talked about 10 years ago.
Maus: I don’t necessarily see a ton of it. I think as the amount of people using e- bikes has skyrocketed and the types of people using them has changed and the bikes themselves have changed, you’re seeing less and less of that tension, less and less of that pushback. It’s still there for sure. And especially like that person that you just mentioned referred to on the paths themselves. The paths are pretty narrow. They’re not enough of them. People are fighting over a scarce resource and there’s this new thing that comes in so there’s going to be a natural reaction against that. That’s human nature. I would hope that we could regulate that and say, let’s regulate for behaviors not for types of vehicles. That’s my concern.
Miller: But you see part of this as connected to the scarcity of good routes to begin with. It’s for you, for a lot of ways, it comes back to infrastructure?
Maus: Absolutely. I mean, I’ve had people email and say these e-bikes are on the Spring Water and they’re going too fast. And I’m like, yeah, it’s unfortunate we only have like 1 of these Springwater Corridor paths that we’re all fighting over. When, if I’m a driver, [there are] these redundant multi-lane arterials I can drive in. No wonder they’re not squabbling over the behavior of their individual drivers, which I do think we could be doing more of right. Everybody’s on their phones. Nobody’s paying attention. Reckless driving and speeding is out of control. That should be part of this conversation as well. Yet here we are framing everything in terms of bike safety when it’s really about road safety. And I think the people with the most responsibility on that road are people behind the wheel of cars.
Miller: And just briefly, Michael, what have you heard from schools or school administrators or teachers? That’s something that Jonathan mentioned earlier as one component of public safety education. Are schools in Bend talking about this now?
Kohn: Conversation has been somewhat limited. You do see a lot of e-bikes at middle schools just this last year. A couple of years ago, you wouldn’t have seen them at all. But just last year, my daughter’s in middle school, kids in middle school are aged 12, 13. You see about 15 or 20 e-bikes parked outside. So there are a lot of kids there. The principal at one point sent us a message advising people to take care and be safe and educate their kids. But they’re not like banning them or preventing them from riding them to school. But their education I would say has been somewhat limited. But let’s see what happens when the school year starts again. Given what happened a couple weeks ago, that may change. We may see some more discussions about how the schools can increase the conversation around safety.
Miller: Michael and Jonathan, thanks very much.
Maus: Thank you.
Kohn: Thank you.
Miller: Michael Kohn is the environment and public lands reporter at the Bend Bulletin. Jonathan Maus is the editor and publisher of Bike Portland.
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