A study in the Chinese city of Hangzhou shows that the number of deaths involving electric bikes has risen sixfold in four years, despite a decrease in the overall number of traffic accidents and fatalities.
The number of non-fatal accidents involving electric bikes per 100,000 of population rose from 3.65 to 13.4 between 2004 and 2008, while fatalities rose from 0.29 per 100,000 to 1.91.
Research suggests younger users are near the heart of the problem. Of the 397 e-bike riders who died (from a total population of well over six million) during the four-year period, 58 percent were younger than 30.
This is an unusual trend, given that electric bikes are often associated with use by older people. And it does seem peculiar to e-bikes – over the same period, the number of deaths on conventional bikes fell from 232 to 101, even though 33,000 free rental bikes are available in Hangzhou.
The figures were originally published in Injury Prevention magazine and based on statistics from the Hangzhou Police Department. The magazine suggests compulsory helmet use and better bike lanes as possible solutions.
Accidents aren't the only result of China's e-bike boom. Unlike in the West, where most electric bikes are equipped with relatively light and power-dense lithium-ion batteries, Chinese bikes almost exclusively use hefty lead-acid batteries which have bought their own unpleasant problems in their wake.
Recently, 24 school children in eastern China were hospitalised with suspected lead poisoning from nearby battery factories. State news agency Xinhua said at least 200 children in the area had elevated lead levels in their blood, prompting authorities to shut down two factories in the eastern province of Anhui.
Lead in the body replaces essential trace metals such as calcium, leading to digestive, nervous, reproductive and cognitive problems. Children are particularly sensitive and susceptible to any small amounts ingested. One local boy was found to have 330.9 micrograms of lead per litre of blood. A level of 100mcg per litre is considered enough to impair brain development in children.
Of course, the electric bike industry is just one tiny facet of China's vast industrial pollution problem, which at times seems to be replicating the worst deprivations of the West's own industrial revolution around a century-and-a-half ago. Factories belching out sulphrous looking smoke are known as 'black dragons' in China.