On Memorial Day weekend, my family pulled into a busy campground for a long weekend of outdoor fun. Like many campgrounds in Oregon, this one was in an idyllic spot between a bunch of exciting outdoor activities like rock climbing, floating on the river, mountain biking, hiking, and running on scenic trails.
At 6 and 8, my kids are still pretty small. I took all the usual precautions—lifted a rock and showed them a scorpion; told them to keep their shoes on because of goatheads, also called puncturevine, an invasive prickly plant that can stab itself into your foot and really ruin your day. I put on their hats and smeared sunscreen on their tiny faces. But as they stood by the car, a few slightly older kids—maybe around 8 or 10—whizzed by on what looked like folding Lectric XP bikes.
They looked like they were having a lot of fun. They were wearing big downhill mountain biking helmets and were zooming at impossible speeds around and around the campground, dodging cars and people with abandon. My kids stared at them wistfully but said nothing. Although we have several ebikes in our garage at any given time, they’re not allowed to ride them until they’re at least 16. If you’re a parent, I strongly suggest you give your kids the same rule.
A Heavy Load
The death of 12-year-old Molly Steinsapir rocked the (admittedly somewhat insular) electric bike world. In 2021, Steinsapir was riding on the back of a Rad Power Bike piloted by her friend, 11-year-old Eme Green. As the pair came down an incline, Green could not stop. The girls crashed at high speed. Steinsapir, who was wearing her helmet, hit her head hard, lost consciousness, and never woke up.
As a parent, those words are hard to write. Steinsapir’s parents sued Rad Power Bikes, claiming that the bike manufacturer was to blame. The electric bike industry has boomed incredibly fast, and reasonable safety regulations have not kept pace. For example, it took dozens of dangerous ebike fires for New York City to push for standard UL certification.
However, as with any new technology, it’s important that parents understand what the new technology is and make their own decisions about what their children are allowed to do. I want to emphasize here that I do not blame Steinsapir’s parents. I can’t imagine the pain of losing your child. Also, you can’t know what you don’t know until it’s shoved in your face. Plenty of parents, including me, have made worse mistakes than letting their child ride an electric bike and have not had to face such terrible consequences.
In their complaint, the Steinsapirs explicitly said they did not know that children riding an electric bike was dangerous. So I’m telling you now, as someone who has ridden dozens of electric bikes over the years, including the RadRunner, which is the bike that Green and Steinsapir were riding when they died: Do not put young children on an electric bike.
In my review of the RadRunner, I noted that it was massive. An 80-pound child should not be riding a 60-pound motorized vehicle, no matter how fun it looks, no matter if you see other children doing it. They can’t. I pack a full 115 pounds of pure coordinated power, and even I have had close calls. Please don’t put your children at risk like this.
Too Hot to Handle
It’s true that children need to learn confidence and independence. My kids roller skate, scoot, skateboard, snowboard, and ride analog pedal bikes. They have fallen down, gotten injured, and will continue to do so. I’m teaching them how to do so, how to pull tricks, and how to navigate safely around cars and in our neighborhood by themselves.
But the injuries sustained from electric bikes are more likely to be more severe, with a higher chance of internal organ damage (like those that you might get from riding a motorcycle). Not only that, but younger riders on electric bikes are also more likely to injure other people, like pedestrians.
The link is pretty obvious. In Israel, electric bikes are limited to people 16 and older. In California and in many other states, you must be at least 16 to operate a class three electric bike—one that goes over 28 miles per hour. But as anyone who has ridden any kind of vehicle knows, 20 mph is pretty fast.
I reached out to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the gold standard when it comes to childhood safety recommendations. The organization would not go on the record, citing a lack of data concerning electric bikes and children, specifically. However, you can find that the organization’s record on motorized vehicles for children under age 16 has stayed pretty much the same since the 1970s. Motorized vehicles, especially adult-sized ones, just aren’t safe for children younger than 16 to operate. They simply do not have the physical, mental, or cognitive maturity to safely operate high-speed motor vehicles.
Slower Is Better
It’s fair to say at this point that I am a huge electric bike advocate. Electric bikes make it easier for so many more people to get out of their cars, reduce air pollution, stop killing kids in car accidents, stop at small businesses, say hi to our neighbors, and generally turn where we live into safe, walkable, thriving communities. I ride an electric bike daily.
But I also take my children’s safety seriously. And electric bikes are useful and powerful, but they’re not toys. If you’re going to ride an electric bike or put your loved ones on one, make sure that it’s properly maintained. Make sure that the brakes work and the chain is clean. And for the love of God, don’t put your small children in a large motorized vehicle they can’t properly control. Kids grow up so fast. It’s OK to take things slow once in a while.