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By Fred Swegles
If you got or gave an electric bicycle over the holidays, congratulations on an instant uptick in your mobility—or your loved ones’ mobility.
Now you can get around this hilly town like never before. And you can coax some exercise from the e-bike if you just make an effort.
As an e-biker in San Clemente for 20 years, I’ve often said, “It takes the pain out of the hills” to people who’ve asked about my e-bikes.
These bikes are fun—whether used as a commuter transport, a way for elderly or sedentary people to get back into exercise or an alternate transport for everybody, if ridden safely.
That’s the big asterisk: The benefits are all for naught if there’s ever a day you don’t return home safely.
You may think a crash is highly unlikely. But just one can be life-changing—whether it was or wasn’t your fault.
With a recent boom in the e-bike population, we’ve seen a backlash on social media against some riders’ behavior—eyewitness descriptions of reckless speeding, running red lights, running stop signs, running yield signs without looking, making dangerous turns, endangering others on sidewalks, showing disrespect if asked to slow down, riding with no helmet, seeming to not realize there are any rules.
The most intense concern online has been about kids on e-bikes, gifted with newfound freedom, a perception of young riders either unaware or uncaring about traffic rules.
There’s a passionate hope that no driver will ever kill or maim a kid who suddenly appears where they shouldn’t be. Or that a kid will crash solo, strike a pedestrian or collide bike vs. bike.
I asked Orange County Sheriff Department Lt. Ed Manhart, San Clemente’s chief of police services, about ground rules and any advice for e-bike recipients.
“Be cognizant of your surroundings and adhere to traffic laws,” the lieutenant said.
Deputies have counseled young riders, Manhart said, but it’s best for parents to personally counsel and remind about safety.
“We have adults who understand the traffic laws, 12-year-olds not knowing the laws. They need to be taught,” Manhart said.
Where bicycle lanes exist, use them, the chief said. Be careful there and elsewhere, especially if approaching intersections or anywhere a bike lane terminates.
“Use caution on sidewalks,” Manhart added.
Sidewalk riding is legal in San Clemente, the chief said, but be careful anywhere near pedestrians—not just for their safety, but yours. Others could make a sudden, unexpected maneuver, just as you could.
Wear a helmet at all times, adult or child. Use a headlight and taillight to be as visible as possible to others.
THE LAW (SEE CALBIKE.ORG)
In California, bicyclists generally have the same rights and responsibilities as car drivers.
You’re entitled to use streets. You must go the same direction as traffic.
Obey traffic laws.
If riding slower than traffic, you must ride as near the right side of a street as is practical—except if passing, preparing to turn left, avoiding a hazard, approaching a zone where cars may turn right, or if the traffic lane is so narrow you can’t stay safely on the right.
If you’re riding slower than traffic and there’s a bike lane, you must use it, except in the above listed situations.
Riders under 18 must wear a helmet. So must passengers under 18.
Higher-speed e-bikes—Class 3, rated up to 28 mph—require helmets on riders of any age.
Class 3 can’t be ridden by anyone under 16.
Class 3 can use bike lanes or separated bikeways if adjacent to a roadway, but not other trails or bike paths or lanes unless allowed by local authorities.
Note: San Clemente hasn’t legalized Class 3 e-bikes on the beach trail or other recreational trails.
Lower-speed e-bikes—Class 1 and 2, rated up to 20 mph—are generally allowed anywhere non-powered bikes can go, unless a sign says otherwise.
MORE SAFETY TIPS
Here are some personal observations from riding e-bikes for 20-plus years in San Clemente.
— Avoid doing anything that’s apt to surprise, anger or endanger others.
— Just as you don’t drive a car as fast as it can go, there’s no need to continually ride your e-bike as fast as possible. Mind your surroundings.
— Never assume that drivers or pedestrians can see you or will notice you.
— Use your bike’s bell or politely say “on your left” if approaching people nearby. Say “thank you” as you slowly pass.
— Before making a turn, alert drivers or pedestrians with arm signals.
— If you use the beach trail, be patient, kind, slow and easy. It’s a scenic, mellow, shared space to enjoy.
— E-bikes’ power and speed capabilities may up the ante if anything goes wrong.
— It’s possible to lose control when standing beside the bike, if you inadvertently activate the pedal assist or throttle. A standing e-bike rearing up on you is scary, especially in tight quarters. You could do damage or hurt someone, including yourself. You can avoid it by temporarily deactivating power.
— Car vs. bike? Car wins. Bike vs. bike can also be awful. So can a solo spill, especially at speed or wearing no helmet. On a two-way bikeway, a head-on crash is horrific—20 mph vs. 20 mph = 40 mph.
— One-way signs do apply to bicycles. Against an arrow, dismount and walk your bike, as a pedestrian.
— These cautions aren’t all-encompassing. And aren’t difficult. Parents, it’s worth imparting safety tips. Nothing may ever happen, but the alternative could be tragic. Fun and riding responsibly can work together, for the child’s own sake.
1. Buy locally. Shops offer warranty work. You can get advice and ongoing maintenance from your shop’s experts. There are also local repair services you can look up.
2. A helmet should be your first accessory purchase, in case you ever conk your head (or an unprotected passenger’s head). There’s a reason you don’t see un-helmeted bicycle veterans, the ones wearing those fancy outfits.
3. Next purchase should be headlight and taillight, if your bike doesn’t have them. Lights, preferably blinking, make you more visible, day or night. I’ve seen darkly attired, un-helmeted e-bikers going fast in the dark. Your own bike’s lights can at least let them see you early. Be extra cautious if riding in the dark.
4. Relying on a quick jolt of speed from your e-bike may or may not get you out of an iffy situation. It could be a life-changing bet. Avoid iffy moves.
5. Give a wide berth if you pass parked cars. A door could fly open. Getting “doored” can be catastrophic. If necessary, take the traffic lane. Cars passing you must give you 3 feet of clearance. Unfortunately, you can’t assume they will. If there’s traffic, consider pulling over, looking back and waiting for the lane to clear before proceeding around parked cars.
6. Let’s enjoy the ride and return home safely.
Fred Swegles is a longtime San Clemente resident with five decades of reporting experience in the city. Fred can be reached at email@example.com.