As E-bikes become public safety hazards, Laguna Beach schools and city officials step in

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An electric bike at Heisler Park. Courtesy of La Vida Laguna

They come bombing down hills, run stop signs and ride the wrong way on one-way streets, often without helmets and with little regard to the laws of traffic. Like the group of boys (and in this case girls as well) from William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, these mostly middle school and young high school-aged kids’ attempt to self-govern is heading for disaster, according to city officials, police and local residents.

A recent post on Nextdoor, a neighborhood hub app, elicited over 250 responses from concerned residents who told stories of near hits on Park Avenue, Third Street and Bluebird Canyon Drive, witnessed reckless riding and kids tossing their helmets into the bushes for later retrieval, and expressed fear about potential accidents and fatalities. The City Council has also received hundreds of complaints and letters of concern about irresponsible riding and unconscious parents who are not paying attention to the potential danger their children are in when they do not obey the laws of traffic. As one resident wrote, “It’s not a matter of if, just when.”

At the June 15 City Council meeting, Interim Police Chief Jeff Calvert explained that during the pandemic, there was a significant uptick in the use of e-bikes for both exercise and transportation. “Through our education outreach, there seems to be a misunderstanding about how e-bikes can be governed,” he said. “They are considered bicycles under the California Vehicle Code and must obey the same traffic laws as motor vehicles. Those under 18 must wear helmets.” Calvert acknowledged that the community is rightfully concerned about the safety of the kids operating these bikes “and we want to prevent a major accident from occurring.”

In an effort to educate kids and parents, school resource officers held a citywide virtual community meeting in May and answered questions. “We have really leaned into education and outreach and have conducted over 40 presentations on bicycle safety in the past six weeks” Calvert said, “but frankly, parents of younger riders riding recklessly need to step in.” He said police officers will enforce bicycle laws, local ordinances, and will be holding a road safety expo. “We want people to have a fun summer, but also share the road in a safe manner.”

Mayor Bob Whalen said he was happy to hear the police department would be stepping up enforcement of e-bikes. “In North Laguna, I’ve seen the pedestrian path on Monterey with bikes and e-bikes with kids riding the wrong way on a one-way street. It’s really dangerous. We have gotten numerous emails from people and education is important, but enforcement is necessary as well.”

Councilmember Toni Iseman said that it’s “just a matter of time” before there is a major accident and suggested police confiscate the bikes of riders who do not obey traffic and helmet laws. She also expressed concern about new teenage drivers. “These kids are not prepared for the sudden braking for e-bikes. An innocent young driver can get caught in this. Schools, the PTA and SchoolPower all need to recognize all kids are in harm’s way.”

Billy Fried, founder of La Vida Laguna, is a proponent of electric bikes, as long as they are used responsibly.

“Electric bikes are a seismic, transformational shift in carbon reduction, reduced traffic and noise, and healthier living. It only took a pandemic to gain mass adoption,” he said. “Laguna is in the throes of positive change, with people finding it far easier and more fun to commute around town and literally smell the jasmine. However, more needs to be done to ensure safe passage, with more bike lanes and roundabouts. Plus, we need sensible regulation for bikers, particularly those hormone-addled adolescents screaming around town. The solution is not Councilwoman Iseman’s knuckleheaded idea to confiscate bikes from kids who transgress. The city would be met with a massive lawsuit —and lose. The answer is sensible regulation and education—which starts at home.”

Sid Faranof, founder of zpizza said that he and his wife recently witnessed a 12 or 13-year-old girl on her e-bike heading down Temple Hills.

“She almost crashed into our car at the corner of Thalia and Temple Hills when she lost control of her bike with another passenger on the back and crossed over the double line and almost crashed head on into our car. We had to make a drastic maneuver to avoid the collision and it took us a day to recover from the possibility we could have injured or even killed two young kids. E-bikes are a great invention, but parents who allow their children to ride them without helmets and knowledge of the rules of the road are responsible for the reckless and dangerous behavior we are seeing from their kids.”

When Andrew Wunderlich, president of Teen Road to Safety, saw three e-bikers run a stop sign while he was conducting a driving lesson, he decided it was time to take action.

“I’m experiencing it as a driving instructor — I saw three kids run through a stop sign. If they were even close to a car they would have been hit. It was a blind street and they didn’t even bother looking. It’s very concerning to me as they don’t understand the dangers of the speeds they are going. We have to educate kids and parents.”

Teen Road to Safety wants to partner up with local beach cities, law enforcement, public and private schools and e-bike stores to educate parents and teens about a safe way to ride e-bikes, as well as what the law is, Wunderlich said.   

As a retired Los Angeles police officer, Wunderlich said he has witnessed many fatal traffic collisions.

“It was my position to educate by citations and public awareness, and enforcement. Now, as the owner of a local driving school that educates and trains teens and adults, I have noticed people of all ages riding e-bikes which presents a new challenge for drivers. These are bikes that go speeds that a normal bike can’t and the problem is that most are being ridden (by young kids) with zero adult supervision and no helmets. This is a recipe for disaster.”

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Oh….so 14 months later the city and police department have woke to the realization that 12 yr olds one bikes that go up to 45mph are a problem….?
    What took so long?

    Article and enforcement WAY overdue.
    Our city is too often reactive not proactive.

  2. I rode a Whizzer motorbike when in HS (yes just like the one inside Ruby’s diner). Got a drivers license in 1956 and have driven cars, trucks, Triumph motorcycles, and Cessnas, Pipers, AT-6s,T-34s, and TA-4s since then and loved them all!! Always had the need for speed!! Have never had a serious (injury) accident with any of them fortunately.
    Mainly because I was too penurious to pay for speeding tickets which I received because I had license plates which could be reported.
    Until the city mandates some type of easily visible number plate, you will be constantly battling this potential for critical accidents or a fatality because youngsters will always challenge
    the rules. Act now to save a life or wring your hands at a funeral

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