The thrills and spills of e-scooters create a safety debate
Wednesday, May 29, 2019
My co-worker and I stood staring transfixed at the Bird e-scooter. It had been decided that if I were to write about the safety of these things, I’d have to at least ride one.
I wanted to do it, but I didn’t want to do it. Images of my broken and balled up body weighed heavy on my mind. I remember asking, "Are these things even safe?"
And as if answered by the universe, a young woman, wearing sun shades and earbuds — stone deaf and blind to the world — floated down the street in front of us on an e-scooter. Travelling at the speed of "whatever dude," she coasted by at 10 mph, in the middle of the street, with a caravan of irritated drivers honking their horns behind her.
"Yeah," I surmised, "this can’t be safe."
I shouldn’t be operating anything that requires even a modicum of physical ability. Yet that’s what I and countless others are being allowed to do in major cities all across America. The e-scooter trend is exploding and has been for at least a year now.
It was in 2018 when things began in earnest. According to authors Joshua Brustein and Nate Lanxon, in an article for Bloomberg, "One of the biggest stories in technology [in 2018 was] the exploding popularity of Bird, Lime, Skip, Spin and Scoot."
"These startups allow riders to locate and unlock scooters with an app. When they reach their destination, they just walk away. Some drivers and pedestrians see the scooters as dangerous contrivances that must be stopped."
Bird, which kicked off the industry in 2017, was started by a former Lyft and Uber executive and is currently operating services in 40 cities. Competitor Lime is in 23. Take a quick walk around the city and you can see how their presence could be likened to an Old Testament cicada infestation; they’re both literally and figuratively everywhere.
"[Bird launched] in Santa Monica, California, and suddenly it seemed scooters were everywhere. Scores of unattended vehicles on city sidewalks have resulted in pushback from people complaining of urban chaos, and some cities have started to cap the number of scooters they’ll allow," Brustein and Lanxon found.
Turns out, those speaking out against e-scooters aren’t simply spoil sports. The scooters have proven to be dangerous.
According to an April study by the Austin Public Health Department (APH) in Texas, with assistance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three e-scooter riders were injured on their first ride.
"Almost half of the injured riders in this study sustained an injury to the head. A traumatic brain injury was experienced by 15%. These injuries may have been preventable. Only one of 190 injured scooter riders was wearing a helmet. Studies have shown that bicycle riders reduce the risk of head and brain injuries by wearing a helmet. Helmet use might also reduce the risk of head and brain injuries in the event of an e-scooter crash."
"Perceptions may be that most e-scooter riders are injured because of collisions with motorized vehicles. The findings of this study does not support that perception."
The authors of the study admitted that their numbers were probably underestimated as they were only able to include people who sought treatment after an injury. Countless others may have chosen to treat themselves, so the true number of those injured may never be known.
Also, to be fair, it must be stated that Bird does indeed provide rules for usage, two of them being "wear a helmet" and "no headphones." Whether people abide by these rules is another conversation.
"This study was limited to investigating only those injured e-scooter riders and non-riders who sought care at a hospital emergency department or had care provided by emergency medical services. These riders are believed to experience more severe injuries compared with injured e-scooter riders whose injuries did not require care from a hospital emergency department or EMS."
Just like riding a bike?
"How hard can this be," I remember asking myself as my co-worker and I walked up on an e-scooter laying lifeless at the corner of Reinekers Lane and Prince Street.
"How does this thing work?" I muttered like an old man, slapping and jabbing at the scooter as if I were trying to get a cathode-ray tube television to work. Meanwhile, my co-worker downloaded the app, worked out my payment and asked one more time, "Are you sure about this?"
"Yeah," I reasoned, it can’t be any harder than riding a bike.
I would soon find out it is a lot harder than riding a bike. According to Ed Benjamin, chairman of the Light Electric Vehicle Association (LEVA), the reason is simple.
Compared to bicycles and electric bicycles, e-scooters small design can cause problems in of itself. “The small wheels mean that they do not surmount obstacles easily,” he noted in a statement.
He also noted that electric mini-scooters often are being used by inexperienced riders. The mixture of these two factors — design and rider inexperience — and you have a natural recipe for injury. This is unlike e-bikes, which according to Benjamin, “have about the same safety record as normal bicycles.”
Bikes, and therefore e-bikes, were designed for road travel. There are versions that are designed for streets, roads, mountain paths and — in the case of motorcycles — the highway. The design for bicycles have stood the test of time.
Scooters, until recently, have only been seen as toys.
“So yes,” Benjamin concluded, "[LEVA’s] stance is that e-bikes are pretty safe. Electric mini scooters that you stand on … not so much."
We take flight
I waited at the red light, staring across the intersection’s early rush-hour traffic in the bike lane. To my left was a line of idling cars whose drivers seemed mildly uneasy with my presence.
"When the light turns green," I yelled back at my co-worker, who was filming, "I’m going to go!" While I didn’t have a helmet, I decided to follow the rules I could and stick to bike paths on the road and away from sidewalks. That means riding alongside actual traffic.
I counted down in my head and when the light turned green, I gunned it and off I flew.
I have to say, in that moment, hitting that straight away: I totally understood. The feeling of freedom you have while zipping along with traffic at speeds you couldn’t normally travel was exhilarating.
Sure, the maneuverability isn’t perfect, but the pick-up in speed is great. Once you master the brake and throttle, you can move about as you wish with little to no apprehension.
This was all, of course, before I ran out of bike lane.
Being emptied out into late afternoon traffic, I was suddenly aware I was riding a vehicle that, in the ‘50s, would’ve come with tassels and a milk crate attached. I soon found myself leading a long line of after-work drivers, all becoming increasingly angry at the weirdly large child up front, creeping along at 15 mph toward Duke Street.
That’s when the honking began. I waived some people past then said screw it, yelling, "bail bail!"
I stopped in the middle of the street, picked the scooter up and began sprinting like a maniac toward and down the sidewalk. I had made it three blocks on the scooter, before my nerves had got the best of me.
I tried to ride with traffic several other times that afternoon before abandoning that plan for fear of being turned into Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear at the end of "Toy Story 3." I found myself on sidewalks, going down one-way roads the wrong way, breaking every rule I could for the sake of transport, simply because I could and because — for me at least — it was safer.
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