Death on an e-bike

While many observers will undoubtedly turn their attention to the alleged drunk driver whose car hit this cyclist, I am prepared to venture into the politically incorrect alternative.

Iris and Avi Nesher with their son Ari at the opening evening of the film festival in Haifa where Avi Nesher's new film "Another Story" was screened (photo credit: RAFI DALOIA)
Iris and Avi Nesher with their son Ari at the opening evening of the film festival in Haifa where Avi Nesher's new film "Another Story" was screened
(photo credit: RAFI DALOIA)
The tragic death of Ari Nesher is yet another wake-up call that should provoke basic questions about road safety.
Almost every fatal traffic collision between two vehicles involves at least some mistake or wrongdoing by the drivers of both vehicles. Whenever we analyze a traffic accident, we cannot assume that one party is purely a victim.
While many observers will undoubtedly turn their attention to the alleged drunk driver whose car hit this cyclist, I am prepared to venture into the politically incorrect alternative and ask whether this victim was entirely blameless.
Of course, driving when drunk is never forgivable, nor is abandoning the scene of an accident. For this, there is talk of escalating the allegation against the sus- pected driver to one of murder. So we can be sure enough that the car driver will be getting the necessary legal attention.
Let us take a look at the tragic lack of legal supervision of electric bicycles here in Israel. Israeli law regards the e-bike more like a bicycle than a motorcycle, and the resulting lack of supervision results in an increasing number of deaths on our roads.
Consider the Tesla. It is a powerful luxury car that differs from a conventional car in that an electric motor replaces the traditional gasoline engine. You need a license to drive the Tesla, and nobody questions that. In contrast, while an electric bicycle is a motorcycle that happens to have an electric motor rather than a gasoline engine, Israeli law allows 16-year-olds to ride them unlicensed and unsupervised.
Gasoline powered motorcycles require a vehicle license, vehicle registration, a special driver’s license, insurance, periodic testing for roadworthiness and a clearly displayed registration number. There is no reason that electrically pow- ered motorcycles should be any different. The current lax legislation regarding e-bikes is the combined result of mistakes of the past and inexcusable neglect by the Transportation Ministry.
ELECTRIC BIKES that are permitted by Israeli law are meant to be limited to low speed and low power. The law presently allows motors with a rated power of up to 250W (about one-third of a horsepower). In practice, almost all e-bikes imported today have 500W motors, and Israel allows their importation, pro- vided that there is an electronic control circuit that limits their actual power to 250W and their speed to 25 km/h.
Furthermore, the permitted e-bikes are meant to work only as pedal-assist cycles, meaning that the cyclist must keep turning the pedals. The function of the motor is to make the pedaling easier by adding torque without adding speed. As such, the speed of the bicycle is further limited by the rate at which the rider can turn the pedals. With the gear ratios provided on most e-bikes, this limits the speed on a flat road to significantly less than 25km/h.
However, it is trivially easy to bypass the electronic power-limiting circuit, and it is estimated that upward of 90% of all Israeli e-bikes have the power limiters thus neutralized. In many cases, the limiters are bypassed before the e-bike even leaves the store where it is purchased. By making a simple modification to a circuit board, one converts a pedal-assist bicycle into a moderately powerful motorcycle.
An e-bike with 500 watts of power and its speed-limiting circuitry neutral- ized can readily reach 60km/h on a flat road. Such a vehicle is a death trap.
Its kinetic energy and stopping distance are nearly six times that of an e-bike limited to 25km/h. The brakes and frame of such a bicycle are not designed to operate at such speeds. Nor is the rider trained to ride that fast. So while Israeli law is negligent enough to allow the somewhat dangerous 25km/h e-bike to be ridden unlicensed by 16-year olds, these kids are actually riding lethal 60km/h contraptions that have the innocent appearance of a bicycle.
WHILE IT IS common knowledge that almost all e-bikes are illegally mod- ified, I doubt whether there is a single policeman in Israel tasked with apprehending riders of e-bikes and checking whether their bikes have been so modified. I strongly doubt whether a speeding penalty has ever been given to an e-bike rider for exceeding 25km/h. Who is responsible for this fatal lack of supervision of electric bicycles? One man is, more than any other, and his name is Israel Katz. He has run the Ministry of Transport and Road Safety for nearly a decade; more about him later.
Our lawmakers need to understand the significance of technical differences between electric motors and gasoline engines, which might not be that obvi- ous. The power of a gasoline engine is essentially a function of its structure. So when a vehicle license is granted for a gasoline moped, the engine horsepow- er is known and cannot reasonably be changed by even a skilled mechanic.
With an electric motor, a schoolchild with basic household tools can watch an instructional video, get some electronic parts for a few dollars on Ebay, and boost the output of a 250W motor by a significant factor. And if that is not enough, users can order online a 1000W motor and install it either them- selves, or at their local bike shop.
This implies that the State cannot limit the motive power of e-bikes as they are being imported. E-bikes must largely be supervised on the road. The only way to do this is to require them to have vehicle registration and their riders a license. The police will also need to be tasked, trained and equipped to appre- hend e-bike riders and spot check their bikes for legal compliance. Legislation is needed to empower the police to take an e-bike off the road immediately if it is illegally modified or ridden by an underage rider.
THE PRESENT lax legal supervision of e-bikes is not merely the result of ignorance or slow response by the Transportation Ministry. When e-bikes first became available, the ministry chose to adopt a liberal attitude to them since they were seen to be a good, ecological transportation solution for many citizens. The decision was made to allow the duty-free import of e-bikes and to permit their unlicensed and uncontrolled use. So the Minister of Transport may have been regarded as doing his job to provide more transportation solutions.
The problem is that Israel Katz is also the Minister for Road Safety, and in this regard, Katz has been disgracefully negligent of his duty by allowing the widespread and uncontrolled use of modified e-bikes that are terribly unsafe.
Besides, if cycling is to be encouraged, he should be doing much more to provide safe and effective cycle lanes. Katz can beam his wide, proud smile as he opens the new train line to Jerusalem just 10 years behind schedule, but should cower with shame about his neglect of the safety of electric bicycles.
Now back to Ari Nesher: Unconditionally, my condolences go out to his family, but I must ask all parents with kids on e-bikes to check: Is your teenager riding a legal and safe machine? Are the brakes well adjusted? Has the power limiter been neutralized? Whether you are Avi Nesher or the parent of any other kid on an e-bike, the chance that it has been made much more danger- ous by illegal modification of its power regulator is over 90%.
The author is an electronic engineer experienced in electrical power control circuits and manager of Deuteron Technologies, Ltd. in Jerusalem.