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After fire kills 3, NYC officials say retailers, delivery apps must do more to ensure e-bike safety

By KAREN MATTHEWS, Associated Press
Published: November 15, 2023, 8:30am

NEW YORK (AP) — New York City officials say retailers and food delivery companies must do more to halt the proliferation of unsafe e-bike and e-scooter batteries, after a fire blamed on an electric scooter’s lithium ion battery killed three people over the weekend.

“There is blood on the hands of this private industry,” Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh said at a news conference Monday in front of the charred remains of the Brooklyn row house where the early Sunday blaze killed Albertha West, 81, her son Michael West, 58, and her grandson Jamiyl West, 33.

Fire officials said the fire broke out on the ground floor of the building. “It’s extensively damaged,” Kavanagh said, adding that the battery that sparked the fire was for a “scooter of some kind.”

The city has seen hundreds of fires linked to the lithium ion batteries that power electric bikes and scooters in the last few years. City officials have blamed off-market batteries and chargers that don’t meet safety standards for many of the fires, and they have lobbied the federal government to strengthen regulations governing the sale of e-bikes and batteries.

But Kavanagh said companies also have a role to play too.

“Retailers like Amazon and Walmart need to stop selling devices that are not safety certified by a national testing laboratory, and food service apps like Grubhub and Uber Eats need to do more to ensure the safety of their workers who depend on these bikes to make a living,” she said.

City officials haven’t said whether the battery that caused Sunday’s fire came from a vehicle used to make deliveries for one of the food service apps, and they didn’t immediately respond to a Tuesday email seeking further information.

Tens of thousands of the city’s food delivery workers rely on e-bikes to get dinner to customers quickly, and Deputy Mayor for Operations Meera Joshi singled out the delivery industry during remarks at a City Hall news conference Tuesday, noting that time is money for delivery workers.

“They’re paid to deliver and speed is rewarded,” Joshi said. “And speed means oftentimes they take risky moves like using uncertified batteries and bikes and chargers, or changing the mechanics of the bike so that they go faster so that they can make more money.”

Joshi said New Yorkers should ask “what is the role of the apps in this? What is their responsibility to make sure that the workers that they profit from have safe equipment without having to pay for it themselves?”

Josh Gold, a spokesperson for Uber, said online retailers should stop selling devices that haven’t been certified by UL, a company that conducts product safety testing on electronics. “In March, Uber called for the City to implement a small fee on all food deliveries to help transition this industry to UL certified bikes,” he said in a statement.

Grubhub spokesperson Patrick Burke said, “We’ve repeatedly called on New York City and the U.S. Congress to provide safe charging hubs for delivery partners, to establish a product safety standard for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, and to address concerns related to illegal, unregulated charging devices widely available for purchase through online retailers.”

Walmart officials said in a statement, “Walmart has zero tolerance for fraudulent sellers or the sale of products with false claims. Like our customers, we expect sellers and suppliers to provide accurate and honest descriptions about their products. When we identify a false claim, we take action to protect our customers and maintain their trust.”

Amazon said in a statement, “We strive to ensure all products offered in our store to comply with applicable laws, regulations and Amazon policies—including NYC Local Law 39. We ensure our selection meets industry-accepted standards, and we develop innovative tools to prevent the sale of unsafe products.”