File photo: Stefano Rellandini / Reuters

London - She didn’t see it coming, or hear it. At about five o’clock on an August afternoon, Sakine Cihan started crossing a road near her home in East London. She never made it to the other side as a 30-year-old man riding a bicycle crashed into her and knocked her violently to the ground. 

As Cihan, 56, lay seriously injured, cradled in the arms of passers-by, the cyclist fled the scene. Sadly, two weeks after the accident, it was announced that she had died.

The number of pedestrians killed or seriously hurt by cyclists in Britain has doubled in the past decade - there were three deaths and 457 injuries in 2016 - yet there is something that makes Cihan's case unique: she is the first person in the UK to have been hit and killed not by a normal bicycle, but by an electric bicycle.

Heavy, silent and extremely rapid, these new machines - known as e-bikes - are attracting growing controversy as sales in Britain soar. According to critics, they are little more than unlicensed motorcycles, capable of being modified to reach speeds of 50km/h or more, and a great danger to road users and pedestrians.

Taking the market by storm

Billed as suitable for young and old alike, bicycles powered by electric motors are taking the market by storm. Sales more than doubled from 2016 to 2017, and there is every indication that this year’s sales will be greater still, with an e-bike bonanza expected at Christmas.

Costing upwards of £400 (R7800), they are already reckoned to account for more than 12 percent of the market. A further 2.5 million sales are expected over the coming 12 months.

Because they are equipped with both pedals and an electric motor, the bikes effectively ‘help’ the rider, particularly moving away from a standing start or going uphill, allowing the cyclist to pedal as lightly as they choose. They can also be used as normal bikes, with the motor switched off, or ridden just like mopeds with no pedalling at all.

As with all new toys - particularly toys with green credentials - the famous are embracing them. Adventurer and TV presenter Ben Fogle is a fan and Simon Cowell has reportedly splashed out on no fewer than seven e-bikes at a cost of almost £60 000 (R1.17 milion) so that he can cycle to and from work. Presumably he has one for each day of the week. Olympic gold-medal winning track cyclist Victoria Pendleton has recently launched her own Pendleton Somerby Electric Bike, that sells for about £850 (R16 600).

Growing toll

But beneath the healthy sales projections, the smiling faces of celebrities, and claims of ecological benefits and congestion-slashing, the rise of the e-bike is potentially bad news for our streets, as Cihan's family knows all too well (although there is no suggestion that the man who crashed into her was breaking the law).

In countries such as China, the United States, Holland and Israel, where e-bikes have really taken hold, they have brought mayhem and a growing toll of injury and death. New York has been forced to crack down on lawless riders.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said: "What people have seen is absolutely unacceptable. Electronic bicycles going the wrong way down streets, weaving in and out of traffic, ignoring traffic signals, sometimes going up on sidewalks. ‘It’s one thing if a regular bicycle does that - that’s a problem - but an electronic bicycle, it’s so much faster. It creates a real danger."

In Holland, one of the most cycle-friendly nations on Earth, e-bikes now make up a third of all sales, a trend accompanied by a near doubling of cycling fatalities over the past year. Experts say that, in part, the danger lies in the sheer weight of the new machines, which - with a battery, a motor and a sturdy frame to support them - can cause significant damage.

High speeds

A new giant breed of electric delivery bikes now on the streets of British cities, equipped with heavy panniers at the front and the rear, looks particularly threatening. But there are other problems, too, as it seems that pedestrians and other road users are confused by the high speeds reached by e-bikes, and by their rapid acceleration.

The profile of the riders is another risk factor, as many are drawn to electric bikes precisely because they are vulnerable - inexperienced or elderly. In Holland, 38 people were killed riding electric bikes in 2017, all but seven of them over the age of 65.

Then there is an altogether more deadly risk. E-bikes can be modified to reach speeds of 50km/h - potentially lethal for any pedestrian who happens to get in their way.

And the changes can be made with shocking ease. Simple-to-fit kits for ‘turbo-charging’ e-bikes are freely available for sale on the internet and in some shops. Plug-in attachments, or so-called dongles, trick the computerised speed sensors on the bike, and over-ride the software restricting them to 25km/h - the legal limit for an electric bicycle.

It 's completely illegal to use these souped-up machines on the road, of course, but suppliers have no qualms about selling the equipment.

"Are you fed up with the power cutting off when you reach the speed limit?" one asks on his website. "We are the only UK suppliers of the Bosch tuning dongle that takes away the speed cut-off restriction and allows you to reach higher speeds on your Bosch 250w or 350w e-bike system."

Presumably for legal reasons, he then warns that the speed-tuning dongle is for "off road (private land) use only".

'Chipped'

Graphic designer Martin Northrop, himself a keen cyclist for more than 30 years, knows just how dangerous these modified electric bikes can be. Jogging in Hyde Park last week, he only narrowly avoided colliding with an enthusiastic e-cyclist hurtling along the cycle track at, he estimates, 60km/h.

"The rider was an older man with a little cap on his head and he was bombing along at a staggering speed," Northrop said. "‘When he stopped before me, I said, 'Crikey, you were belting along', and he just grinned with obvious relish, as he told me that he’d had it 'chipped' to go fast.

"Frankly, the speed it was going means that it’s no longer a bicycle but a motorised vehicle - and potentially very dangerous for people walking through the park. You don’t expect those kind of speeds."

Go-Ped scooters

As if this were not enough, an invasion of American-style electric scooters is now adding to the chaos on our roads and pavements. Sometimes called a Go-Ped, this is the motorised version of the foot-powered scooters much-favoured by children and ‘Yummy Mummies’. Elsewhere in the world, however, they are a cause of major concern, with injuries and deaths recorded in the United States, Holland, Israel and Singapore.

There have been protests in California, where competing hire and sharing schemes have left the pavements littered with dumped scooters, notably in San Francisco and Santa Monica. Kansas City has banned them from shopping areas. On the East Coast, Boston’s Mayor Martin Walsh has threatened to impound them.

In Britain they are effectively illegal, banned from roads and pavements, as are Segways and hoverboards. Yet e-scooters are available both for sale and for long-term hire in high street stores and, while they are not cheap - they cost from £500 (R9800) - again sales are expected to soar this year.

Users and retailers say the police appear to be turning a blind eye so long as they are ridden safely.

"It’s a grey area,’ explains Liam Lawless, who sells Israeli-designed Inokim scooters from a shop in Central London. "I’ve never known of anyone being pulled over by police."

Whatever the law says, he commutes to work on his e-scooter, claiming: "It’s good for the planet, more practical in big cities than the electric bike, can be carried, and is easy to hop off, if needed."

No wonder safety campaigners in Britain are warning about the dangers posed by ‘green’ takeover of roads and pavements - and are demanding safeguards. The charity Cycling UK, for example, says a full review of road traffic offences is now required to protect the public.

At present, in England, Scotland and Wales, you can ride an e-bike if you are just 14 and without the need for a licence of any kind. This might seem an extraordinary state of affairs, bearing in mind that electric bikes in Northern Ireland require a moped licence and must be registered, taxed and insured.

Archaic laws

Such rapid changes in technology are certainly increasing the pressure to change the archaic laws which govern - or fail to govern - cyclists in Britain. The man who knocked down Sakine Cihan in Dalston could only be arrested for ‘furious driving’ under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. He is yet to be charged.

This is the same ancient legislation that was used to prosecute and jail cyclist Charlie Alliston, whose illegal bike without brakes struck and killed Kim Briggs, 44, in London in February 2016. Following her death, and a campaign by her husband Matthew, the Government is pressing for a new, more effective offence of causing death or serious injury when cycling.

After all, whatever the ecological boasts of this trendy revolution, it seems the silent new machines can be just as deadly as the cars they are intended to replace.

Mail On Sunday

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