By Laurine Lassalle, Aspen Journalism
Pitkin County and Aspen have been seeing an increase in bike and e-bike accidents over the past five years, according to data from Pitkin County Open Space and Trails and the Aspen Police Department.
As a result, Aspen Valley Hospital’s trauma department is seeing more patients with severe bike injuries — an increasing proportion of which are the result of e-bike accidents.
“It’s definitely higher than it ever has been,” said Dr. Christopher Roseberry, AVH’s trauma medical director. “The e-bikes are so popular, and e-bike rentals are so popular among visitors. We went into the season fully expecting to see more e-bike injuries, and that’s what we ended up seeing.”
Pitkin County Open Space and Trails rangers have reported 110 bike and e-bike crashes on OST properties since 2016. Twenty-six of those involved e-bikes, according to an analysis by Aspen Journalism.
Since 2018, Class 1 pedal-assisted electric bikes, or e-bikes, have been permitted on paved or packed-gravel trails. They are still not allowed on single-track trails.
Gary Tennenbaum, OST director, wrote in an email that the increased use of e-bikes, the more use of trails in general and the explosion in demand for rental bikes have led to more bike crashes on trails.
“E-bikes are attractive because the user may travel farther faster and with moderate ease,” Tennenbaum wrote. “This brings a wide variety of people to the trails, including inexperienced riders.”
E-bikes are also heavier and faster, making them harder to control, according to Tennenbaum.
Sixty-two percent of the crashes happened on the Rio Grande Trail, with a total of 68 bike and e-bike accidents over the past five years. Fourteen of those involved an e-bike.
Tennenbaum links this high number of accidents to the popularity of the trail, which runs along the Roaring Fork River on the northeast side of Aspen.
Over the years, the number of crashes has increased. In 2018, OST reported a total of 19 crashes, but the number jumped to 27 in 2019, including seven incidents related to e-bikes. That year saw the highest number of accidents for both bikes and e-bikes since 2016.
Although the number of total accidents slightly decreased in 2020 to 24, the proportion of e-bike accidents increased to 38% in 2020 from 26% in 2019.
In 2021, OST has recorded 13 crashes for bikes and e-bikes through Oct. 5, including seven involving e-bikes. Five of the bike and e-bike accidents that happened this year were on the Rio Grande Trail, including one involving an e-bike.
According to Tennenbaum, trail visitation is slightly down from 2020 but remains higher than pre-pandemic years.
“The Woody Creek Tavern was closed till mid to late July,” Tennenbaum wrote, suggesting that likely held down numbers on the Rio Grande Trail, “and we only get notification of accidents that get a 911 call or when rangers come upon an accident.”
Overall visitation decreased by 5% on OST trails this summer compared with the summer of 2020, according to OST data. The Brush Creek Trail lost about 40% of its visitation between June and September 2021 compared with the summer months of 2020. Visits to the Upper Rio Grande Trail also decreased from 64,068 in the summer of 2020 to 63,415 this summer.
The only exception was the Rio Grande Trail at Stein Park, which saw about 8,800 more visits this summer than during the summer of 2020.
Severe e-bike injuries doubled from 2019 to 2021
Twenty-four of the 28 bike accidents that have caused head injuries (including possible head injuries) since 2016 involved non-electrical bikes, according to OST data. The other four involved e-bikes.
“Head injuries are more severe and usually 911 is called, so we can track that,” Tennenbaum wrote. “Many injuries go unreported if they are not severe. We are starting to track helmet use, but from our rangers, they feel a large majority wear helmets on the trail.”
The number of severe e-bike injuries requiring admission to AVH doubled from 2019 to 2021, to 12 in 2021 from 6 in 2019, according to the hospital.
And while the number of patients with injuries related to bike or e-bike accidents who were admitted or transferred at AVH’s trauma department increased from 30 in 2019 to 39 in 2021, the share of those injuries attributed to e-bikes rose to 30% from 20%, according to Jennifer Slaughter, AVH’s chief marketing officer.
Last year marked the only exception to this trend, as the total number of severe bike and e-bike injuries dropped to 26, with only two involving an e-bike. “In early summer of last year, we just didn’t have many people in town (due to the pandemic), so our overall hospital numbers were way down,” said Roseberry, AVH’s trauma medical director.
Yet, these numbers don’t give a complete picture and only show the most serious injuries. Roseberry estimated that these figures represent only about 10% to 11% of all bike and e-bike injuries, since most don’t require hospital admission.
Head trauma and fractured collar bones, arms and ribs are the most common injuries caused by serious bike and e-bike accidents, Roseberry said.
Over this past summer, the majority of bike accidents resulting in severe injuries involved e-bikes, Roseberry said, according to an indicator used by AVH that assesses the severity of injuries.
E-bike riders are typically older and at higher risk of serious injuries
In 2021, the average age of adults severely injured on an e-bike was 69, Roseberry said, while the average age of adults severely injured on a non-electrical bike was 51.
“It’s a much older population,” he said. “What we are really seeing is that many injuries are happening when people are riding beyond their level of ability to control the bike (and e-bike).”
As e-bikes give people the opportunity to go on strenuous rides that they would not normally do, such as going to the top of the Maroon Bells or to the top of Ashcroft, they may put riders, especially older users, in danger on their way down as they go faster. That increases the crash impact and their risk of losing control.
“E-bikes are extremely heavy, which carries with it their own risk because a heavy bike takes much longer to stop and it’s much harder to control,” Roseberry said.
Although AVH and OST have seen an increase in e-bike crashes and injuries, an analysis of data from the Aspen Police Department shows that the department only recorded one e-bike crash since 2016 among the 111 bike and e-bike crashes that occured in town from 2016 to 2021. Eighty-two percent of the accidents were medical calls.
The department data showed that 2020 saw 23 crashes, second only to the 24 in 2016. As of Aug. 25 this year, there have been 15 crashes.
Twenty-seven of the accidents since 2016 happened in AP14, an area defined in Aspen police records as extending from the roundabout at the entrance of Aspen and along Main Street, skipping the downtown core and continuing through the neighborhoods on the north-east end of town. In the AP10 zone, which includes the Rio Grande Trail corridor beginning at Herron Park and the Hunter Creek and Centennial neighborhoods, there were 21 accidents on record.
E-bike riders need to keep speed in check and wear a helmet
This summer, OST, the Forest Service, the city of Aspen, the town of Snowmass Village, the Aspen Chamber and the Aspen Skiing Co. led an education campaign about e-biking in and around Aspen.
“The chamber and Forest Service made a video about e-biking to the Maroon Bells,” Tennenbaum wrote. “We (OST) created a website showing where you can e-bike in Pitkin County, made flyers that all bike rental companies can hand out to e-bike rentals with a QR code to that website, which also had information about safely e-biking.”
Roseberry made videos on bike safety for AVH’s social media feeds this past summer hoping to reduce the number of injuries.
“A lot more education needs to happen because, clearly, we’re seeing a lot of injuries,” Roseberry said. “Part of the education is knowing that e-bikes are heavy, they will easily get you into a situation that may be difficult to control the bike, so you really need to keep your speed in check.”
Seventeen of the 39 severely injured individuals from a bike accident were not wearing a helmet, according to Roseberry.
“Bicycle helmets reduce serious head injury by 60%,” Roseberry said, referencing national studies. “That’s certainly motivation to wear one.”
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