Plan to double power of e-bikes sparks fire fears

A bike damaged by a fireLondon Fire Brigade

A government plan to double the maximum legal power of e-bikes has drawn warnings that it could increase the risk of severe battery fires and other injuries.

The Department for Transport is consulting on the proposals which would also allow e-bikes that don’t require pedalling to travel much faster.

The government said it wanted to make riding e-bikes more attractive.

But critics said the plans posed safety risks.

There were more fires caused by e-bikes and e-scooters in London in 2023 than in any previous year.

London Fire Brigade said it supported green transport but described lithium battery fires as “London’s fastest growing fire trend.”

“The risk of more severe battery fires – because of these more powerful models – which the consultation does highlight, is a significant concern”, said Assistant Commissioner for Fire Safety, Charlie Pugsley.

Campaign group Electrical Safety First said: “Substandard e-bike batteries are already causing devastating fires across the country.”

MPs should focus on making current batteries safe, it said.

Currently the motors of e-bikes – or electrically assisted pedal cycles (EAPCs) as they are officially known – must not exceed 250 watts.

The government wants to increase that to 500 watts in England, Scotland and Wales.

It is also consulting on increasing the top speed that users on e-bikes with throttles can travel, to 15.5mph up from 3.73mph at the moment.

In its consultation document, the government acknowledged that higher speeds and more power could increase road risks, including collisions.

It said it could also make battery fires more severe, with risks heightened by tampering.

However, it said having greater power might also reduce the incentive for people to tamper with their bikes – one of the issues contributing to safety problems with e-bikes at the moment.

The government said boosting e-bike power might also encourage more delivery bikes, cutting congestion and air pollution, while making rides easier and more enticing to users.

But Volt, which makes e-bikes, said the plan to boost the power would “attract unsafe batteries and potentially encourage users to tamper with them”.

Volt managing director James Metcalfe said lawmakers were “failing to understand what our industry truly needs”.

“It is our infrastructure that is lagging behind, not the technology in e-bikes,” he said. “Ministers need to take action to build more cycle lanes and increase incentives for sustainable transport.”

Campaign group Cycling UK said the main reason more people don’t cycle was that they don’t feel safe on the roads.

It warned that the proposals presented “a huge safety risk to pedestrians and others who cycle”.

“The dramatically increased power would mean faster acceleration and much heavier bikes, which we’re really concerned about,” said Cycling UK’s director of external affairs, Sarah McMonagle.

She said the government should invest in better cycling infrastructure, and give financial assistance to people who need it for bikes.

‘Serious concerns’

Three people died in London last year in fires thought to have been caused by e-bike lithium batteries.

The risk of e-bike fires has been in the spotlight in recent weeks, with one delivery rider telling the BBC that, due to the high price of reliable e-bikes, people will buy “cheaper, less reliable and often dangerous batteries”.

The Bicycle Association, which represents the UK cycle industry, said it was concerned the proposals could legitimise the process of tampering with e-bikes to boost their power – with a higher potential power leading to “possibly very serious fire safety consequences”.

It said it also feared the changes could lead to calls for “moped-like” regulations for the sector – such as mandatory insurance, registration and helmets – which could make e-bikes “significantly less attractive” to people.

The government said it would use any feedback it received through consultation responses to consider how to mitigate risks.

A government spokesperson said: “We’re launching this consultation to gather views on how we can increase power safely for certain users, including those with mobility issues and e-cargo bike operators. Safety is always at the heart of any decisions made around e-bikes and the results of the consultation will be published followings its closure.”

The consultation will end on 25 April 2024.

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