By: Marty Dolan and George King – Dolan Law, Chicago.
Published in the Clarendon Hill Living Magazine
Electronic bicycles—also called e-bikes—are ambivalent. Young people are finding innovative ways to replace typical modes of transportation. Electronic bikes are cheaper than cars, don’t require gas, and are eco-friendly. However, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of an e-bike and overlook some important implications. Should you, or your child, choose this new mode of transportation, it’s essential to consider several safety factors.
First, Illinois’s e-bike laws are vague. The use of electronic bicycles is subject to local regulations, not just state laws. Illinois law says, “A person may operate an e-bike upon any bicycle path unless the municipality, county or local authority with jurisdiction prohibits the use of e-bikes or a specific class of e-bike on the path.” Illinois law allows the use of e-bikes but leaves users guessing about local ordinances. Hinsdale and Clarendon Hills ordinances are currently silent on the issue of e-bikes; failure to address the issue of electronic bicycles places a big responsibility on the user.
Illinois law uses a three-tier classification system for electronic bikes in Illinois. All three methods have different regulations that a rider of an e-bike needs to consider.
Class one: has “a pedal-assist only motor” that tops out at 20 miles per hour. On a class one bike, the motor only works while the rider is pedaling.
However, a class two e-bike operates somewhat like a motorcycle; the motor powers the bicycle without the user pedaling. Class two bikes have a throttle, and since the motor is propeller based, it only ceases to function when the brakes are applied. A class two bike tops out at 20 miles per hour.
Class three: also has a pedal assist motor, which stops when the rider stops pedaling. However, class three bikes become more dangerous by allowing the user to reach a speed of 28 miles per hour before motor function ceases.
Regardless of class, motor engagement on e-bikes means a much higher risk of injury for users. Illinois law says each electronic bicycle must have a speedometer that displays the speed the bike is traveling in miles per hour. Also, riders of electronic bicycles must be at least sixteen years of age to operate the bike, and all e-bikes are not allowed on a sidewalk per Illinois law. Still, many e-bike riders fail to appreciate the risk associated with the instant gratification of operating an e-bike. Underage riders often ride without a helmet or on the back of another user’s bike. Reports of fatalities with helmets are still common, according to the Washington Post; a twelve-year-old in California died in an e-bike crash after riding on the back of an e-bike with her friend.  Not only are young users of e-bikes at significant risk of injury or death if not extremely careful, but e-bikes also pose a risk to pedestrians. According to Reuters report, e-bike injuries are three times as likely to involve accidents with pedestrians as opposed to traditional biking accidents.
E-bike crash and safety statistics call into question the risk versus reward aspect of the bikes. Electronic bicycles may cause more injuries than traditional modes of transportation—like cars or motorcycles. A National Transportation Safety Board study found that there were roughly 120 deaths due to e-bike use from 2017-2021. Similarly, a UCLA study tracked the usage of e-scooters and e-bikes and reported that the use of those two methods of transportation resulted in a significant increase in the likelihood of injury as opposed to a car or motorcycle. That study considered 1,354 people who suffered an injury as a result of an e-bike, some of whom were pedestrians and not operators of the e-bike. Thirty percent of those injuries required a follow-up visit to a clinician.  According to a study done in Switzerland, hospitalization and chest trauma rates are also higher among e-bikers. 
The likelihood of injury or trauma should be a cause for concern among parents and e-bikers alike. From 2017 to 2021, e-bike injuries spiked 127 percent, and deaths rose from five to 48 percent, according to a United States Consumer Product Safety Commission study. The sheer weight of e-bikes, combined with the fire risk of lithium-ion batteries, plays a large role in injury possibility. The high speeds of the bikes and the need to quickly maneuver or turn would support a necessity for a user to be independently licensed for an e-bike. However, e-bikes are not explicitly “motor vehicles” and, thus, are not subject to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s standards. Furthermore, Illinois does not require special licensing to operate e-bikes; they’re classified under a standard “bike” definition.
Finally, insurance coverage is a gray area. According to insurance brokers, feedback is lacking on the dangers of an e-bike. The main issue is whether to insure the e-bike under personal property with a homeowner’s policy or under a separate motorized vehicle policy, depending on the state. Illinois law is vague on this issue and does not require e-bikes to be insured, but a local ordinance might require it. Some e-bikes can cost up to $8,000, while other standard models may range anywhere from $600 to $2,000. However, in a policy that could cover an e-bike—like a homeowner’s policy or renters insurance—a claim would only likely be covered up to $1,500. Furthermore, while policies vary, most insurance coverage will not cover third-party damages. The rider, or more likely guardian or parent, may be personally liable for medical costs, lost wages, or other legal action should an accident occur.
Insurance companies are still reacting to this new wave of transportation. For instance, the insurance company Lemonade just began to offer coverage for e-bikes. The coverage extends only to class one and class three e-bikes, and they are covered under a renters or homeowner’s policy as “scheduled personal property.” It is important to note that class two e-bikes may not be covered at all due to the propeller-based motor. The throttle feature on a class two bike makes the bike a motorized vehicle, in effect.
At a time when the uncertainty of e-bikes was already seemingly insurmountable, the lack of commentary and direction from lawmakers only adds to the issue. The popularity of e-bikes will continue to rise. However, the data clearly illustrates a simultaneous risk of injury along with this newfound popularity. The implications of young people operating an e-bike remain to be fully seen. Should you or your child invest in an e-bike, be sure to fully understand what you are purchasing; and more importantly, take the proper precautions to inform your child what they are riding in order to avoid possible consequences.
 IL Department of Transportation www.ilsos.gov/publications/pdf_publications/dsd_a143.pdf
George King is a rising second-year law student at Belmont University College of Law in Nashville, TN. Prior to law school, George graduated Summa Cum Laude from Furman University. Currently, he works as a law clerk for Dolan Law in Chicago, IL.
Marty Dolan is the owner of Dolan Law, Chicago. He is a trial lawyer and has been so for over 30 years. Dolan Law handles serious injury and wrongful death cases including crime victim litigation. He is appointed to the Illinois Supreme Court Committee on Character and Fitness and The Illinois Supreme Court Rules Committee. He is a Clarendon Hills resident. See www.dolanlegal.com.