Terror by electric bike in China?

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a great article about e-bikes in China.

Most people in China cannot afford a car yet, and there wouldn’t be room on the streets if everyone could afford them! Public transportation can be slow and crowded.

Bicycles have been a popular, low cost way for Chinese to get around for decades. But as incomes rose, many Chinese opted for faster motorbikes to get around on. The problem with gas powered motorcycles is that they were primarily cheap, two stroke models that caused massive amounts of air pollution. Chinese authorities banned them in many downtown and urban areas, just as the technology for electric scooters became good enough and cheap enough to be a reasonable alternative.

These days there are an estimated 120 million e-bikes in China. Most of them run on lead acid batteries, which are much cheaper than technologically superior lithium ion batteries.

So what’s the problem?

Officials were caught off guard when that environmentally appealing solution turned out to be deadly on the streets. In 2007, there were 2,469 deaths from electric-bicycle accidents nationwide, up from just 34 in 2001, according to government statistics.

That’s roughly 3% of China’s annual 90,000 traffic accident deaths. Still technically bicycles, they’re operating in a legal gray zone. Drivers of electric bikes don’t need to pass stringent driving tests to get licensed, and courts are struggling to sort out lawsuits.

Pedestrians complain that e-bike riders pay little heed to the rules of the road. Drivers of electric bikes are “totally devoid of conscience and respect for the law,” complained Wang Mingyue, a blogger on the popular Beijing News Web site.