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As e-bikes surge in popularity, questions about enforcement and regulations persist

Photo of Adam Peck
Courtesy
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WGLT Staff
The In Exchange area of Illinois State University's campus is where administrator Adam Peck was struck by a person driving an e-bike. He was knocked hard enough on the ground that he suffered a head injury that led to brain death.

Long before he ever came to Bloomington-Normal, university administrator Adam Peck knew the growing use of electric bicycles and scooters posed a safety threat in certain situations.

The assistant vice president and dean of academic affairs at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas, watched as the new tech burgeoned across the 12,000-student campus and felt that, on school grounds, e-scooters posed a threat to pedestrians. Eventually, he helped draft university policy that banned their usage on the college campus.

Adam Peck, an avid walker, finishes a triathlon in Katy, Texas, in 2012.
Courtesy
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Michele Peck
Adam Peck, an avid walker, finishes a triathlon in Katy, Texas, in 2012.

Less than a week before he died in September 2022, Peck saw a similar tension at Illinois State University — this time with e-bikes.

An avid walker dedicated to clocking at least 10,000 steps per day, Peck often worked while walking. And while walking on campus, he noticed — sometimes too late — the presence of e-bikes, seemingly everywhere. They were quiet, he told his wife, Michele, and sometimes startling when they quietly whizzed by.

While giving an out-of-town friend a tour of ISU’s campus in Normal, a place they were quickly coming to love after spending more than a decade in Texas, Michele told WGLT in an interview she witnessed the exact situation her husband had warned her about.

"As we were walking through [a pedestrian] exchange just across from the [Performing Arts Center] building, an e-bike came up on us and he jumped out of the way and he said, 'One of these days, one of those things is going to kill me or someone else,'" she said in an interview.

That was a Friday.

The following Monday, engaged in his favorite form of exercise — the way he most preferred to do his thinking and working — Peck, walking on ISU's campus, was struck by a person driving an e-bike. Witnesses whose interviews were recorded in an ISU police report said they believed the e-bike was traveling at a high rate of speed, though the driver, a post-graduate student at ISU, told police he “didn’t believe it to be fast.”

Regardless, Adam Peck was knocked hard enough on the ground that he suffered a head injury that led to brain death. A week after he predicted someone would die from unregulated e-bike usage on ISU’s campus, he passed away himself.

The death of the respected academic and beloved husband and father highlighted then — as it still does today — systems of regulation that have failed to match the pace of a growing sector of technology.

A lawsuit pending in McLean County court hopes to set some precedent and change that fact.

'Insufficient probable cause'

Michele Peck came to the scene of the collision shortly after it occurred, according to a police report, and saw its location. She, along with her attorney, Bloomington-based Jim Ginzkey, have maintained that Adam Peck was hit on an ISU sidewalk — an area explicitly prohibited for e-bike use in state law.

But the driver of the e-bike was never cited.

“I have never been able to understand or reconcile why there were no charges involved,” Ginzkey said in an interview. “The individual was riding a relatively sophisticated e-bike on the sidewalks, which is a clear violation of the Illinois Motor Vehicle Code. And it seems to me if you’re violating the motor vehicle code and it results in someone’s death, intentionally or intentionally, there nonetheless have to be some consequences.”

Documentation obtained by WGLT indicates the e-bike in question was an Ancheer 350/500mw electric bicycle, which fits what the Illinois Motor Vehicle Code classifies as a “low-speed electric bicycle.” A spokesperson from the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office confirmed that, for anything that fits the state’s criteria of an e-bike, “the prohibition is absolute.”

ISU wrote in a statement to WGLT that it considers the legal matter a gray area, saying “there was, and remains, a lack of clarity in the Illinois traffic laws concerning the use of e-bikes and other electronic recreational devices on sidewalks” and ISU Police determined there was “insufficient probable cause to support criminal charges.”

Over the past several years, e-bikes have surged in popularity. They’re an accessible means of cycling for some people who may need extra assistance pedaling, don’t require a driver’s license, and provide an environmentally friendly way to travel.

Matt Moore, the general and policy counsel of bicycle trade association PeopleforBikes, said up to 1.2 million bikes will be imported to the U.S. this year alone, with that number expected to increase the year after.

“Over half the bikes sold in Europe now are electric bicycles. PeopleforBikes sees that same trend happening here in the U.S.,” Moore said. “It's about, I would say, 10-15%, right now, of sales. But we think that's going grow and more and more people are going to adopt them and use them for transportation, as well as recreation.”

It’s that growth that has Ginzkey concerned about a lack of enforcement of e-bikes on sidewalks in particular. To his knowledge, he said, such a case has never been prosecuted.

“I would like to see a little bit better enforcement of the Illinois Motor Vehicle Code with respect to the use of these e-bikes,” he said. “That code specifically says that these bikes can only be ridden upon roadways. It's illegal to ride them on a sidewalk. Michele and I are hoping to bring some attention to that issue, because I think it's only going to get worse — meaning you see more and more of these.”

It’s difficult to say exactly how many collisions, crashes or other incidents involve e-bikes or e-scooters: Prompted by their increasing popularity, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA] published in 2022 a report saying “inconsistent” reporting of e-bike crash and injury data across the country has made it “difficult to analyze traffic safety issues involving these devices.”

The NHTSA is currently working alongside the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission “to gather information on how best to oversee the safety of e-bikes,” the agency said in a statement. Data from 2021 and 2022 indicates there were at least 103 e-bike fatalities across the country over that two-year span.

While the NHTSA urged more uniform data reporting and collecting in its 2022 report so that any potential safety hazards may be better understood — and accounted for — that isn’t the only issue in need of clarification.

'An area of the law that hasn't caught up'

Nearly two years after Adam Peck's death, his wife Michele remains in the midst of a court case with Bloomington insurance giant State Farm, which she said denied her claim of coverage following her husband's death, then dropped her altogether.

In the slew of end-of-life paperwork Michele faced, insurance policies were among the many to-do's. Once the purview of her husband, Michele said she began looking at the outstanding auto policies the family had with State Farm that October.

"'Like, Oh yeah, I guess I need to take him off the policy, and then report this because, you know, he was killed by somebody riding a motorized vehicle,'" she said. "I got a swift message back from State Farm saying that an e-bike is not a motorized vehicle according to our policy. ...Flat denial. Flat denial."

Peck contacted Ginzkey, an attorney she knew personally to discuss the issue. Shortly after, he filed paperwork in court.

Adam Peck, an ISU administrator, at Watterson Towers on move-in day in August of 2022.
Courtesy
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Michele Peck
Adam Peck, an ISU administrator, at Watterson Towers on move-in day in August of 2022.

The case hinges on whether there is ambiguity in the language — whether, as-written at the time, the policy does not exclude e-bikes from its definition of motor vehicles, as State Farm has argued in court documents.

State Farm declined to comment, citing its customer privacy policy.

Ginzkey said State Farm has argued its policy language "subsumes, for lack of a better expression, a definition in the Illinois Motor Vehicle Code with respect to e-bikes."

"That particular definition is about as obtuse as it can be in the Motor Vehicle Code," he said. "My position is if State Farm is going to say, 'Well we've adopted the [state] definition of a motor vehicle,’ it's got to state that in the contract, in the policy. They didn't do that."

Ginzkey added that he also is arguing that the federal Department of Transportation's definition of a motor vehicle includes e-bikes, which would supersede state statute.

"The argument that we'll be making here in McLean County, before the trial judge, is federal statutes take precedence over state statutes, and again, contract law, if it's ambiguous, is construed against the drafter — [that's] number one," he said. "Number two, [is that] federal regulations or federal legislation supersedes state law, state motor vehicle code provisions. So that's what we'll be litigating."

Calling it a trend would likely overstate the prevalence of such cases, but Matt Moore, of PeopleforBikes said court systems have been faced with some of these legal "gray areas" surrounding micromobility devices like e-scooters and e-bikes.

In New Jersey, the state's highest court heard a case against Progressive Insurance in which attorneys for a man operating a Segway scooter argued he was eligible for personal injury protection benefits after he was hit by a car.

In that case, the man argued he should be considered a pedestrian in the no-fault insurance state, which would entitle him to benefits that would have covered his medica bills.

The New Jersey Supreme Court, in its ruling, declined to expand the state's definition of a pedestrian to include operators of devices like the Segway, saying that "would be a policy decision with insurance cost implications that is properly for the Legislature, not the Court."

"There is a bit of a gray area right now around e-mobility products," Moore said. "This is an interesting area of the law that hasn't caught up and courts are now having to address. ...If state law doesn't clearly say, you know, what an e-bike is, it gives room for arguments to be made."

'Not how I expected it to work'

The payout for the claim Michele Peck sought from State Farm was not particularly lucrative, around $10,000. The legal fees from this case will likely exceed that dollar amount.

Peck said she's continued with the lawsuit as a matter of principle.

Shortly after Ginzkey filed paperwork in court, she said, she received a letter saying that her policy had been canceled and her household had been newly-classified with a designator that made it difficult for her to receive insurance from any company.

"They said they were canceling us because [we] were a 'high-risk' household because I had submitted a claim that my husband got killed," she said."...So not only [was] I canceled and unpaid, now I'm saddled with this label. There was probably a good month we were completely without any insurance."

Adam Peck, left, with wife Michele.
Courtesy
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Michele Peck
Adam Peck, left, with wife Michele.

"That was annoying; I was just moving past that, but then getting canceled for my insurance — it's just like, I didn't do anything wrong. I get that it's just one of those things where life is universally unfair, but it's not how I expected things to work."

Ginzkey said he intends to take the case to trial, where a jury will end up determining the fate of the matter.

‘How do we keep pedestrians safe?’

In Texas, Michele said Adam Peck had been proud to help craft policy aimed at better protecting walking students on-campus, since he’d felt e-scooters were too dangerous.

Though he hadn’t been at ISU long, he’d been eager to work on a similar issue, feeling the university could do more to regulate the use of e-bikes on campus. But he never got the chance to see that work through to its end.

“He had said, ‘I'm going to look into our policies on campus. I'm going to look into pedestrian safety. We’ll look into, ‘How do we keep pedestrians safe and keep these sorts of vehicles off-campus?’” Michele said.

About a year after Adam Peck’s death, ISU launched dismount zones around the Quad, an area that sees a significant amount of foot traffic. The zones are intended to be pedestrian-only, meaning that bike, scooter, or skateboard users are supposed to “walk their wheels.” But the effort has largely been a public awareness campaign that has been criticized by some for not going far enough in creating meaningful modes of enforcement.

"I think that's what's tough for me, too. You'd like to see that he didn't die in vain. Maybe that's the wrong way to say it, because he's left an amazing legacy in terms of his career and our family and he made such an impact on student safety and student success," she said.

“There's value to the sustainability and access to e-transportation with bicycles and scooters and things like that. I just think they're potentially dangerous, and there should be safety regulations [that are] enforced. Not enforcing them has led to a risk for public safety.”

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.