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E-Scooter Safety a Growing Florida Concern, as Tampa Records Its First Rider Death

July 15, 2019 - 9:00am
Scooters in special lanes found safer than on sidewalks
Scooters in special lanes found safer than on sidewalks

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signing of a bill greenlighting e-scooters in bicycle lanes is a little-known triumph to come out of the 2019 legislative session. It will mitigate certain safety concerns and issues with pedestrians -- particularly the elderly, disabled, and toddlers who populate Florida’s urban sidewalks.

But there is more to be done to shore up scooter safety.

Two days after Sunshine State News ran a June story about e-scooter safety concerns in Tampa, a collision with a semi-truck there claimed the life of a 33-year-old male rider. He was not wearing a helmet and a subsequent obituary said at the time of his death, the victim was engaged to be married and was working as an accountant in Tampa.

There are no regulations anywhere in Florida requiring helmets for scooter riders. A consensus of law enforcement and health care agencies estimate fewer than 5 percent of riders wear helmets.

Nevertheless, the new law, along with the horrifying short history of e-scooter deaths and injuries throughout the country, will help municipal governments regulate the world's most recent transportation fad. At least, to some degree. Prior to the legislation, scooters were restricted to narrow, congested sidewalks and crosswalks, increasing the hazard for pedestrians as well as for riders.

E-scooter deaths have also attracted international attention. On Friday, famous YouTube personality Emily Hartridge, 35, became the first reported e-scooter fatality in Britain when her scooter collided with a truck on a busy London street. The British government is in the process of reviewing laws and public education campaigns around ridership and scooter companies.

Proponents of the fad, including the scooter rental firms themselves, cynically note that per capita deaths are higher with automobiles. But scooters overwhelmingly are ridden in downtown cores where slower vehicular speeds predominate. Injuries are another matter, even as scooter mishaps are underreported.

Tampa, ignoring the negative experience of many cities, rushed headlong into the scooter business, partnering with four rental companies. Officials there seemed more preoccupied with scooters not being returned and left to clutter sidewalks than with safety issues.

Last month, Calvin Thornton, bicycle and pedestrian engineer in the City of Tampa Traffic Department, predicted the allowing of scooters in bike lanes will improve safety. He pointed to improving technology and rider experience as other factors in accident prevention.

But Tampa’s matter-of-fact attitude in fixing the mess with tighter regulation has cost one life in the city and countless injuries. Sadly, there will be more. The City Council is scheduled to look at the scooter controversy in August.

In contrast, St. Petersburg has been treading cautiously. Mayor Rick Kriseman reportedly was unequivocally opposed to instituting a scooter program unless the dockless, shareable two-wheelers were permitted in bicycle lanes. Now with the DeSantis signoff, St. Pete has scheduled a scooter agenda item for July 25.

St. Pete Council member Gina Driscoll said the new law is helpful but safety and liability issues remain and must be solved. The scooter rental firms need to accept some responsibility if the city takes on the project.

"More detailed information and counsel from our city attorney are the keys to if and how St. Petersburg sets up a scooter program,” she told Sunshine State News. “We can learn from the experiences in Tampa and other U.S. cities.”

The City of Clearwater adopted a wait-and-see policy as it looked across the bay at Tampa's experience. Officials there have indicated a revisiting of the issue with the relaxed state law.

The City of Miami is cautious as well -- in the midst of a six-month e-scooter pilot program. Interestingly, the program occurs only in the council district of the one member enthusiastic about scooters.

Miami residents so far have mixed reactions: some like the convenience while others are concerned about safety. The scooter companies are fined for every abandoned scooter that causes clutter and must be relocated. Tampa has no such penalty.

Some cities that yearn to attract Millennials believe a scooter program is alluring as that demographic typically fits the rider profile. Driscoll begs to differ: jobs and housing are more critical criteria than a proven-dangerous recreational fad.

The new law by no means is foolproof. Safety, liability, and clutter issues still abound. But the state’s prodigious senior and disabled populations can breathe somewhat easier and the law can, and no doubt will, be strengthened and tweaked as time goes on.

Jim Bleyer, a former reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and Tampa Tribune, writes the Tampa Bay Beat blog.

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