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Those Cute, Pesky E-Scooters: Amenity or Menace?

June 19, 2019 - 7:15am
E-scooter riders in Los Angeles
E-scooter riders in Los Angeles

It’s been a rocky road for electric scooters.

Embraced by many American cities, including Tampa, the dockless, shareable two-wheelers have experienced mounting injuries, many serious. Initial enthusiasm has been replaced with a healthy dose of reality.

Sure, they’re cute, cheap, and offer Millennials a downtown diversion. But rider irresponsibility coupled with poor regulation and lax oversight caused many cities to eliminate e-scooters or remap when, where, and how they are used.

The degree to which people are breaking bones and sustaining head injuries has alarmed the Centers for Disease Control, which released a major study into scooter-related injuries. The research team calculated that there were 20 individuals injured per 100,000 e-scooter trips, with almost half the riders sustaining head injuries.

Consumer Reports was able to confirm eight deaths due to scooter accidents.

Florida’s major issue: Current state law permits scooters only on mostly narrow, congested sidewalks (and crosswalks), where they compete with, and occasionally hit, pedestrians. The Florida Legislature passed a bill allowing the vehicles to use bicycle lanes, a giant step in preventing collisions, sidewalk rage, higher insurance rates, and litigation.

The bill awaits action by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Meanwhile, several cities that leaped headlong into the transportation fad have experienced scooter woes. A brief sampling:

—In Austin, 193 riders went to emergency rooms during a three-month period.  A 21 year old died in a scooter crash.  It was estimated only one percent of all riders used helmets.

—-In Los Angeles, 91.6 percent of accident victims were riders who’d fallen, collided with an object, or were struck by a vehicle. But 8.4 percent were pedestrians who collided with scooters, tripped over them, or were attempting to lift them. Only 4.4 percent were recorded as wearing a helmet.

— Portland’s pilot scooter program accounted for 10 emergency room visits per week, about 5 percent of total traffic crash injury visits. A report noted sidewalk riding and lack of helmet usage were dominant issues. Portland’s Bureau of Transportation found the e-scooter injury rate to be 2.2 accidents per 10,000 miles -- much higher than the national average for motorbikes (0.05 per 10,000 miles) and cars (0.1 per 10,000).

Calvin Thornton
Calvin Thornton
Calvin Thornton, bicycle and pedestrian engineer in the City of Tampa Traffic Department, nevertheless predicted the e-scooters will evolve into a safe transportation alternative. He cited improving technology, the flattening learning curve for riders, and increased cooperation by the scooter companies as reasons for his optimism.   

“First, top speed for scooters is 15 miles per hour. Technology can lower that figure through GPS and the traffic situation,” he explained. “And we are hopeful that the legislation authorizing scooter use in bicycle lanes will become law.”

Thornton pointed out that scooter problems are mostly encountered by first-time users and as the program takes hold, rookie riders will gain valuable experience in navigating their way through city streets.

"Anyone involved in an accident with a motorized scooter has the right to notify law enforcement. There could be insurance or injury issues,” Thornton said. “And we are also counting on the scooter companies to police bad behavior."

But is entrusting safety measures to scooter companies wise?

A spokesperson for scooter company Bird disingenuously asserted that scooter use takes cars off the road, thus preventing many fatalities.  But those scooters are ridden in urban cores where they are far more likely to replace shank’s mare or biking.  And, of course, automobile fatalities overwhelmingly occur on highways and open roads.

Also, Bird and Lyme, another scooter company, began operations in 43 markets without government permits or consent. Several cities responded with cease and desist orders, fines, or both.

Four companies operate in Tampa: Jump, Spin, Bird, and Lyme. Thornton pointed out that in no way could they be characterized as “fly by night,” so they are expected to be good citizens. For example, Spin is owned by Ford; Uber oversees Jump.

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