The latest government figures from China show that in 2007, 2,469 electric-bike users were killed. In 2001, that figure was just 34.
Despite the rise, and the fact that there are estimated to be some 120 million electric bikes in use in China now, the latest fatality figures still only account for 3 percent of China’s annual 90,000 traffic deaths.
Pedestrian deaths were over 21,000 and motorbike deaths over 18,000. Cycle fatalities, at 7,500, were significantly greater than e-bike fatalities, while deaths on public transport were a relatively low 1,200.
The figures highlight the debate about just how environmentally friendly China’s e-bikes are. When introduced in 1990s, electric bikes were heralded as a low-energy, low impact solution to the transport needs of millions keen for something speedier than the humble bike.
The problem of disposing of the often very sizeable lead acid batteries used to power most e-bikes was highlighted by a 2007 academic report, which concluded “lead is the most problematic environmental cost for electric bikes.”
Past bans on e-bikes by city authorities in Fuzhou, Beijing (later repealed) and recently the large industrial city of Shenyang show the level of official concern, as does the recently aborted attempt of a central government crackdown.
In 2009, Changsha city traffic police handed out 60,000 tickets in five days to overweight, speeding or unregistered electric bikes.
It’s also commonly recognised that the law – theoretically limiting the speed of e-bikes to around 12mph (20kmh) – is loosely enforced at best, and widely flouted.
As Hangzhou resident He Chenyan commented “These limits don’t matter. The traffic police won’t bother with us. They’ll focus on real motor vehicles like cars and motorcycles.”
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