Dr. Hell, the share of cyclists involved in accidents is higher in the case of pedelecs than in the case of normal bikes. Are they therefore more dangerous?
Dr. Wolfram Hell: Yes, it looks like. An analysis of accident data from Germany has shown that the risk of death on a pedelec is significantly higher than on a bicycle even in consideration of the often higher mileage. According to a Swiss study, this applies also to injuries. It classifies the risk of injury with an e-bike like that of a motorcycle rather than that of a bicycle.
Pedelec riders tend to be older. What effect does this have?
Hell: The risk of injury is four times higher for people over 60 than for people aged 20, especially as regards severe fractures of the femoral neck, the radius in the area of the wrist or the rib. For this reason, the target group of the pedelec has to pay particular attention to their safety.
The obligation to wear a helmet is often discussed as safety measure for pedelecs. Is this reasonable under medical aspects?
Hell: Absolutely. However, a helmet is particularly reasonable for all people from 45 years on, no matter whether they ride a bike or a pedelec. At an advanced age, vessels in the brain are less elastic and blood-thinning medication is often added. Both increase the risk of severe brain injuries in the case of a crash. Nevertheless, hardly 10 percent of the women older than 60 and 17 percent of the men wear a helmet. In Sweden, about half of all severe head injuries are prevented because 70 percent of the cyclists voluntarily wear helmets.
Which physical requirements should pedelec riders fulfil?
Hell: The ability to rotate the head as well as good hearing and sight and of course the ability to react quickly in critical situations. If someone has to hand over his or her driver’s licence, because he or she is no longer able to and then changes to a pedelec, this is the wrong step.
Mr. Zedler, you examine accidents with bicycles. Is an accident sometimes also caused by the pedelec itself?
Dirk Zedler: That’s rare. Sometimes a crash occurs because the motor continues running or because the pedelec moves forward when the pedals are touched while standing. This happens sometimes with very cheap pedelecs.
The motors provide assistance up to 25 km/h. Is this too powerful for some people?
Zedler: The risk potential is not due to the speed, but to the ever-increasing torque of the motors. It leads to extreme accelerations by means of which a pedelec easily outruns a car on the first metres. Such motors were designed for e-mountain bikes, but now they are also found on low step-through bikes. For people who are not quite fit or who dare to cycle with a pedelec, this is unusual and dangerous. For them a less powerful drive would be better.
But you can still brake.
Zedler: In fact, many cyclists are unable to do that. Actuating front and rear brakes, butt to the rear, supporting the body weight at the front, standing securely and that very quickly, but not in panic. This complex sequence of movements requires practice. In fact, only a few people practise emergency braking with their bike.
What is the best method of practising critical situations on one’s pedelec?
Zedler: Safe riding trainings are optimal because dangerous situations are practised under guidance. There are special trainings for pedelecs. But it also helps to slowly approach an emergency stop and see how the bike reacts. Another good exercise is to ride very slowly or as close as possible around and between two bottles. And then repeat this with really heavy panniers on the luggage carrier. This can be made on every parking space, makes the handling of the pedelec more playful and thus often also safer.
Dr. Wolfam Hell researches severe and fatal road accidents at LMU Munich.
Dirk Zedler examines technical causes of accident as an expert for bicycles and pedelecs.