As bicycle, e-bike collisions rise in coastal North County, local officials discuss safety options

With an uptick in bicycle collisions and soaring e-bike usage
With an uptick in bicycle collisions and soaring e-bike usage, local officials in coastal North County are considering their options to improve safety.
(Luke Harold)
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With bicycle collisions on the rise in coastal North County, coinciding with the burgeoning popularity of e-bikes, local leaders are considering ordinances and other options to make the roads safer.

The total number of traffic collisions recorded by the San Diego County Sheriff on local roads in Del Mar, Solana Beach and Encinitas decreased slightly each year from 2018-22 (the data excludes freeway collisions that are recorded by the California Highway Patrol). The only exception was in 2020, when there was a much larger dip in collisions due to decreased traffic in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Collisions rose the following year before continuing their overall decrease in 2022.

But within that data, collisions involving regular bicycles and e-bikes increased nearly 50% when comparing 2018 to 2022. Most of those collisions are in Encinitas. Del Mar and Solana Beach, the two smallest cities in the county, each accounted for fewer than 10 collisions involving bicycles per year from that five-year period.

In 2021 and 2022, collisions that included a bicycle or e-bike ticked up to a little more than one per week, and accounted for about 17% of total collisions — up from 10% five years prior.

Those bicycle collisions have resulted in 232 injuries to all parties involved, as well as three fatalities.

A heatmap of where collisions involving bicycles and e-bikes have taken place in Encinitas, Solana Beach and Del Mar, based on 235 collisions recorded by the San Diego County Sheriff from 2018-22. (Luke Harold)

Over the past few years, council members and parents have been particularly concerned about e-bike usage. The sheriff does not specifically track e-bike collisions; all collisions involving any type of bicycle are classified the same way. But the surge in bicycle collisions coincides with the increase in e-bikes on the roads.

E-bikes do have a lot of support among local government officials and the general public for their health and environmental benefits. But with assisted speeds of up to 20 mph on Class 1 and 2 e-bikes and 28 mph on Class 3, they also have their own set of public safety concerns.

Del Mar, Solana Beach and Encinitas are all considering local ordinances to regulate e-bike usage. E-bikes, like regular bicycles, are currently subject to the same traffic laws as automobiles. Unlike cars, there are few prerequisites and safety requirements to operate an e-bike.

The specifics of their potential laws are to be determined, but cracking down on unsafe offroad usage has been a common refrain throughout North County.

In Del Mar, city leaders want to consider their options for e-bike regulation before the end of this fiscal year in June. Mayor Tracy Martinez said she often uses an e-bike, but has heard a lot from residents about children who ride them without helmets, on the sidewalks and with no regard for stop signs.

“I think some regulations are really necessary and I hope the council supports that,” Martinez said. “We’ve had kids riding on the beach on e-bikes, which is not allowed, and the lifeguards are aware of that. But we don’t have any guidelines or rules yet.”

Del Mar Municipal Code prohibits motorized vehicles, including e-bikes, but makes an exception if the rider doesn’t use the pedal assist or motor.

Erica Davis, who lives in Del Mar, said her 6-year-old son was building a sandcastle at Torrey Pines State Beach last summer when an older child on an e-bike crashed into him. She said his injuries included abrasions throughout his body and a laceration on his chin that required stitches. A state parks spokesperson said that as of August 2021, e-bikes are not allowed at Torrey Pines State Beach or Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.

“That for me has been the hardest thing,” Davis said, “is finding a safe place outside where I feel like I can let my kids roam and run and not have to worry about them getting hit by a bike, especially a young kid on an e-bike who really doesn’t have experience being able to predict what people will do.”

Solana Beach resident Karl Rudnick, an instructor with the League of American Bicyclists who teaches e-bike safety classes for adults, said there’s a need for more education.

“They’ve essentially given 20 mph electric motorcycles to 12-year-olds,” he said. “You can’t even get on a motorcycle without a driver’s license.”

But he added that some of the children he sees on the road who ride their e-bikes frequently are among the safest riders, while plenty of adult riders also break traffic laws and shirk best safety practices.

“There are still some bad riders out there, but there are some bad drivers out there too,” said Rudnick, a founder of BikeWalkSolana.

Helmet enforcement among children has been a particular focus for the sheriff’s department.

“It’s better,” said Deputy David Drake, from the North Coastal Station. “The kids are definitely wearing their helmets. They could do a better job of strapping their helmets. But I think that’s definitely improved because that’s what we’ve been focusing on.”

Children who are cited are also given the option to take a California Highway Patrol online safety course to avoid traffic court.

Drake was one of several city and school leaders who attended a February School District Liaison Committee meeting in Encinitas. The discussion included potential state legislation to provide some uniformity in e-bike policy, as opposed to the current patchwork of regulations by cities, school districts and other local officials.

“Encinitas should be a nationwide leader in bike safety, bike education and promotion of bikes as a means of transportation,” Encinitas City Councilmember Kellie Hinze said.

Solana Beach Mayor Lesa Heebner said the parameters of a local ordinance, if the City Council goes that route, are “open for discussion at this point.” She mentioned a possible licensing requirement.

“I don’t think it’s just a phase, I think it’s here to stay,” Heebner said. “We’ve got to take a look at the implications of all this, because there are some really wonderful benefits that come from it.”

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