Is It Safety Last on America's Roadways?

Back in March of 2021, the headline of one of my weekly columns asked a provocative but important question: What’s driving the turn of our roadways into speedways? As we ventured out onto America’s roads and highways and into escalating traffic following a year of the pandemic, reports were mounting (especially around metropolitan areas) of excessive speeding accompanied by an almost lawless attitude about other drivers and rules of the road. Commented USA Today’s transportation reporter Luz Lazo at the time, the pandemic, which has so greatly altered our lives, is also altering the “dynamics of road safety.” Proclaimed a report by The Zebra, the nation’s leading insurance comparison site, extreme speeding had now “become popular.”

The Zebra report went on to say that “being on the road has changed from just a means of transportation to a socially distant remedy to ‘lockdown fatigue.’ Not only does this mean drivers are more likely to rage-drive as a form of stress relief, drivers also might seek an adrenaline rush by driving faster on purpose.”

Now, some 15 months later, it feels like things have only gotten worse. If anything, being caught in, maybe even participating in such dangerous driving habits has become normalized.

Another aspect of this “Mad Max” emulating roadway phenomenon came to my attention in a recent Science Daily report of a University of Michigan study in a South Texas community of Nueces County. Researchers assessed more than 600 adults over 65 years old in the study that had cognitive assessment scores indicating a likelihood of impairment. The study revealed that a majority were still driving, despite concerns raised by caregivers and others.

“Approximately one in nine Americans aged 65 and older, or 6.7 million people, are estimated to live with Alzheimer’s disease and millions more have related dementias,” says Science Daily. “These conditions may affect neuropsychological and visual skills that reduce the ability to drive safely.”

“The discussions between caregivers and people with cognitive impairment about driving are difficult,” says the report, noting that “researchers say it’s best to start conversations surrounding driving earlier while the care recipient is able to understand and actively participate in the discussion.”

Says senior author Dr. Lewis B. Morgenstern, professor of neurology, neurosurgery and emergency medicine at University of Michigan Medical School, close family should consider having discussions with aging loved ones about agreements called “Advance Driving Directives.” These are contracts between an aging person and a loved one about the termination of driving.

While addressing the issue of older impaired drivers on the roadway is an important one, it is only one “driving concern” that needs to be addressed. The following is one I find even more fright inducing.

The era of the e-bike is upon us. And heaven help us. In a recent article by Matt Richtel, bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, teenager accidents and fatalities involving e-bikes are on the rise. We should not be surprised.

“The typical e-bike has functioning pedals as well as a motor that is recharged with an electrical cord; the pedals and the motor can be used individually or simultaneously,” he writes. “Unlike a combustion engine, an electric motor can accelerate instantly, which makes e-bikes appealing to ride.” E-bikes have also been described as easy to maneuver, like a bicycle, but with the torque and power of an off-road motorcycle.

As a transportation solution, e-bikes seem promising as they are relatively affordable and offer busy families more transportation options. Today, the sale of these transportation devices have mushroomed into a booming global enterprise. According to an e-bike market analysis by Mordor Intelligence, the e-bike market size is expected to grow from $28.87 billion in 2023 to $52.59 billion by 2028.

“The summer of 2023 has brought sharp questions about how safe e-bikes are, especially for teenagers,” Richtel points out. “Many e-bikes can exceed the 20-mile-per-hour speed limit that is legal for teenagers in most states; some can exceed 55 miles per hour. But even when ridden at legal speeds, there are risks, especially for young, inexperienced riders merging into complex traffic with fast-moving cars and sometimes distracted drivers.”

According to the local police, the San Diego beach town of Encinitas was recently prompted to declare a state of emergency for e-bike safety following two serious crashes between teens on e-bikes and vehicles. One resulted in a fatality.

“Being able and willing to take risks and try new things is a part of our natural tendency to explore the world during adolescence. It’s a fundamental aspect of learning,” says a report by the University of California, Los Angeles Center for the Developing Adolescent. “Every time we do something with an uncertain outcome — taking a ‘risk’ — dopamine is released.” For teens, the response becomes amplified when peers are present, or if a kid even thinks peers are watching, notes the report. The “rewarding feelings” from an unhealthy risk becomes more intense. “Our reward system during these years is generally more excited by risks than at other times in our lives,” says the report. “The attraction of risk and novelty can make (teens) more vulnerable to unhealthy behaviors, such as reckless driving.”

Seeing kids screaming along a street at 20+ mph on an e-bike, “popping a wheelie,” meaning raising the front wheel off the ground and holding it there, seems to be becoming a common sight in some cities.

“To some policymakers and law enforcement officials, the technology has far outpaced existing laws, regulations and safety guidelines. Police and industry officials charge that some companies appear to knowingly sell products that can easily evade speed limits and endanger young riders,” writes Richtel. “Two federal agencies, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said they were evaluating ‘how best to oversee the safety of e-bikes,'” says the Times report.

Even without the proliferation of e-bikes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show that “car drivers ages 16 to 19 are three times as likely to be killed in a crash as drivers 20 or older, and bicyclists ages 10 to 24 have the highest rate of emergency room visits for crashes.” And now, a new tragic statistic seems to be emerging. According to the website eBicycle, patents for e-bikes have been around since the late 1800s, but big companies became interested in electric bicycles in the 1990s. Today, the global electric bicycle market is skyrocketing, as our two frontline safety agencies are, sadly, just now “evaluating” a situation the could have been predicted long ago.