It’s a new year, and yet we’re facing the same old problem as last year: electric bike fear-mongering from irresponsible journalists painting an overblown risk of e-bike fires.
This time, we’ve got a doozie of a headline from Men’s Journal: “E-bike Batteries: A Leading Cause Of Death In NYC”.
The only problem is it’s wrong. As in, completely wrong. The premise is not even close to aligning with reality.
This isn’t to say that fires from improperly constructed or tampered with electric bike lithium-ion batteries is a non-issue. It is an important matter requiring increased regulation – something NYC has already begun. The issue is acutely essential in NYC, where bike couriers rely on e-bikes to deliver food and goods to city residents, and are often forced to buy the cheapest e-bikes available due to the low wages of these critical service jobs. Such cheap e-bikes regularly scrimp on important safety features, resulting in a higher risk of battery fires – especially when unofficial or inexperienced repairmen try to repair worn-out or malfunctioning batteries.
The issue is a fatal one, even. New York City saw at least 17 deaths last year from fires started by faulty lithium-ion batteries. It’s worth noting that many – if not most – of these fires aren’t actually caused by e-bike batteries but rather electric scooters and e-motorbikes that firefighters don’t understand and thus lump into the e-bike category. But that’s a nuance lost on most people so we’ll ignore it for now and include all micromobility-related fires.
Every one of those 17 deaths last year is a tragedy. And increased regulation to weed out the ultra-cheap, poorly-made e-bikes can help. But to call it a “leading cause” of death in NYC is journalistic malpractice. In fact, in all of my extensive research, I can’t even tell you what rank it is because it is so far down the list of leading causes of death in NYC that the statistics don’t even go that low.
So the simple fact of the matter is this: no, e-bike fires are not a leading cause of death in NYC. They aren’t even close to making the list.
Even if you ignore the true leading causes of death, such as over 17,000 deaths per year due to heart disease in New York City, then lithium-ion battery fire deaths are still not even close to making the charts. That’s a 1,000x higher likelihood of death by heart disease.
Compared to battery fire deaths, New Yorkers are 176x more likely to die from a drug overdose, 23x more likely to be murdered, 5x more likely to die while riding the subway, and over 3x more likely to die from choking. You’d be safer to chew your food a little longer than to worry about an e-bike fire.
Focusing in further just on fire deaths, several times more people are killed in the city from fires sparked by electric space heaters. A single space heater fire in 2022 killed 3x as many people as all e-bike battery fires combined in NYC that year.
Even if you want to hyperfocus on bikes, then let’s talk about the bigger cause of bike-related deaths in NYC: cyclists getting killed by cars. Due to the lack of proper bike lanes in NYC (missing on 97% of NYC streets), there are several times more cyclist deaths than deaths due to battery-related fires. And pedestrians have it even worse – they’re even more likely to die from getting hit by a car in NYC than cyclists. In fact, you’re 7x more likely to die from getting run over in a crosswalk in NYC than from a battery fire.
E-bike fire safety is absolutely an important issue, and this article isn’t meant to minimize it. Instead, it just needs to be put into perspective to avoid demonizing what could be the biggest transportation revolution in a century, saving countless lives through reducing our impact on global climate change. But let’s not convolute an important safety discussion into clickbait fear-mongering, especially when it pales in impact compared to real issues that should actually keep New Yorkers up at night.
More attention and ultimately regulation should be applied to reduce the number of deaths from e-bike fires from 17 to zero, but let’s keep the issue in proportion. Considerably more lives would be saved every year just by NYC being able to pass its ban on mega-sized sugary drinks that was nullified a decade ago. Remember, more than 1,000x more New Yorkers are killed by heart disease than e-bike batteries.
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