Why Fox News wants you to be afraid of electric bikes
Fox News is no stranger to the tactic of fearmongering as a way to stir up its base. But the media network’s latest misdirection campaign attempts to use fear to attack a surprising new target: electric bicycles.
Electric bicycles are essentially normal bicycles but with the addition of a small electric helper motor and a lithium-ion battery for energy storage. They go faster than most pedal bikes while requiring less effort from the rider, which has made them a popular alternative vehicle in cities and suburbs. They’ve found favor as cheaper car replacements for many people. As a type of small EV, or electric vehicle, it’s not exactly a wonder that Fox News would put e-bikes somewhere on its enemies list.
But with a misleading story running last week entitled “How e-bikes are exploding and killing people,” the media giant leaves little room for doubt about just how far they’ll go with misdirection to try and scare people away from the fastest-growing form of low-cost, efficient, and effective transportation.
It’s true: All the long-term trends show that electric bicycle sales are skyrocketing. They’re outselling electric cars in the US, and in some areas, e-bikes are soon set to outsell all cars – gasoline or electric. They’re helping replace the tired image of Americans driving their single-occupant SUVs a mile down the road for a gallon of milk.
That makes them ripe for Fox News to hold up as some form of boogeyman to scare up their base, a group that is famously resistant to change. And e-bikes are exactly the kind of change that Fox News would vilify – a low-cost technology that helps Americans of all socioeconomic levels get around without a clutching dependence on Big Oil and Big Auto.
The basis of Fox News’ attack on electric bicycles is cherry-picked fire data in New York City.
You might have heard about electric bicycle fires in the news lately, as it is a topic that is getting increasing coverage despite the relatively few events. Even with minimal incidents compared to the number of e-bikes rolling around the city, examining any threat to public safety is certainly warranted. Between the dense urban population of NYC and the higher-than-average number of e-bikes used in the city, the issue has become a growing concern.
What you might not know (since it is much less frequently reported) is that most of these electric bike fires aren’t related to electric bikes at all – they’re much cheaper electric scooters. Most of the pictures of these fire aftermaths show charred husks of cheap Chinese e-scooters.
But regardless of the semantics, the underlying concern is this: Why do these batteries catch on fire, and how concerned should the public be?
Why can e-bikes sometimes catch on fire?
So what’s going on here? There are hundreds of thousands of high-quality e-bikes and e-scooters in the US with battery certifications and proper safety protocols. Even so, low-cost e-scooters (and yes, sometimes e-bikes too) have been increasingly imported to the US with low-quality lithium-ion batteries that, in very rare cases, have caught fire. It’s usually when people have used the wrong third-party chargers or have tried to do at-home repairs on the complicated battery systems.
That distinction isn’t overly complicated. It’s not that it requires any significant amount of nuance to understand. But it also isn’t as flashy as a Fox News headline of “How e-bikes are exploding and killing people.”
And it’s not that Fox News doesn’t realize the incredibly small size of the actual risk. A single line admission gets tossed near the very end of the article, presumably in a halfhearted attempt to claim some form of balance: “In the meantime, it’s important to note that the vast majority of e-bikes on the market are safe and reliable when used as intended and maintained properly.”
By Fox News’ own admission, there had been a single fatality in NYC this year from this spate of e-bike or e-scooter fires at the time of publishing.
But even while paying lip service to the small proportion of e-bike fires within the larger e-bike population, the story fails to properly frame the impact of the threat. For instance, did you know that cyclists in NYC are over 10 times more likely to be killed by a car than to be killed by an e-bike fire? In 2021, there was a single e-bike fire fatality compared to 19 cyclists killed by cars in NYC. That same year, there were over 200 pedestrians or micromobility (bike, scooters, mopeds, etc.) riders killed in NYC.
I don’t mean to unjustly minimize the real risk of e-bike fires but rather to justifiably demonstrate how minimal the risk truly is. Just like how there was a spate of Samsung cell phones with lithium-ion batteries catching on fire a few years ago, the actual risk was significantly smaller than the reporting made it feel. Dozens of phones out of millions is a similar ratio to the e-bike and e-scooter scenario now.
Does Fox News actually care about transportation dangers?
It is true that NYC has seen approximately one dozen deaths due to lithium-ion battery fires in micromobility vehicles in the last few years. And there have been legitimate, balanced reports from other news organizations about e-bike fires. In the same period, though, many hundreds of pedestrians have been killed by cars and trucks in the city. Thousands of pedestrians are killed by cars in the US each year. Often dozens per day. Dozens.
But that doesn’t play into the Fox News narrative, and so it doesn’t get coverage. It also doesn’t get included for reference to understand the size of the e-bike fire risk.
That’s because when you tell people the truth, that you’re between 10 to 30 times more likely to die by being hit by a car while walking around the city than from an e-bike battery fire, it doesn’t promote the right type of fear for Fox News. It shows that the true villain isn’t the e-bike but rather the car.
The truth doesn’t scare people away from effective, low-cost alternative transportation. Instead, it shows the very fact that Fox News wants to hide: that e-bikes aren’t the problem – cars are. E-bikes, in fact, are the solution. Steps are being taken to reduce battery fires, but even if they weren’t, a drastic increase in e-bikes used to replace cars would still save lives by reducing fatalities. It’s simple math.
If Fox News cared about saving lives or protecting people, it wouldn’t pander fear about NYC’s single-digit deaths per year from lithium-ion batteries in micromobility vehicles. It would highlight the city’s hundreds of deaths per year from cars killing pedestrians. But you won’t hear about that because the goal isn’t to save lives. It’s to use fear and misdirection in an attempt to resist a changing transportation paradigm that is slowly shedding our nation’s dependence on Big Oil and Big Auto.
Fear keeps people hooked, and Fox News is well practiced at wielding it. When someone peddles that fear in an attempt to prop up a boogeyman, we should always ask ourselves why.
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