Electric Scooters: Friend or Foe?

Cities are struggling with safety implications.

Alex Epstein
November 11, 2019

Ever since electric scooters, or e-scooters, started appearing in urban centers around the country last year, the response has been mixed. Some, excited to adopt a fun new way to complete that last segment of their commute, became early adopters. Some city dwellers and planners, meanwhile, were irked contending with a spike in tripping hazards and injuries from e-scooters left behind, as well as unsafe operators that rarely wore helmets.

The question many cities struggled to address was whether they, too, should jump on the bandwagon, or whether they could afford to take a more cautious approach.

Chicago recently completed a four-month trial of 2,500 e-scooters from 10 different companies, and the results were mixed. After 7,000 trips a day, dozens of emergency room visits and 39 company citations, Chicago decided to hit the pause button and evaluate whether the experiment was worthwhile.

From the beginning, e-scooters have been touted as an affordable, environmentally friendly transportation solution for cities already teeming with many other on-demand travel options.

Bike rental kiosks also have become a familiar sight in urban centers around the country, but at least the rules were clearer when it came to bikes. Many riders (and city planners as well) seemed unsure if e-scooters meant something else entirely.

In most cases, e-scooters were dockless, so riders could pick one up and leave it after the ride was done just about anywhere, leading to e-scooters becoming more of a public nuisance than a public good.

Many users were uncertain where to ride them – either on the sidewalk, bike lane or in the street. A quarter of users said pedestrians got in the way, and one in 10 felt unsafe around vehicles. Furthermore, a JAMA study found that more than 94% of riders observed failed to use a helmet. A significant portion of those injured were often first-time riders. Early studies showed that most injuries were head injuries, and most happened to scooter riders who didn’t know how to operate the machines.

The issue, of course, is that safety took a back seat to novelty. After reviewing crash severity studies and reported experiences from several cities that implemented dockless e-scooters, it seems clear that we need to rewrite the rule-book for e-scooters with safety in mind.

The following safety tips should be seriously considered to prevent the kinds of issues we have seen crop up around the country:

  • Scooter drivers should always wear a helmet and closed-toe shoes; they should also consider using wrist guards, knee pads and elbow pads
  • Only one person should ride at a time
  • Scooter drivers should only ride where allowed (which, in most jurisdictions is on the street and in bicycle lanes), follow all posted traffic rules and avoid tailgating or other stunts
  • Scooter drivers should keep both hands on the handlebars when riding and avoid distractions
  • When parking, scooter drivers need to leave the scooters in places that do not infringe on the rights of other motorists, bicyclists, wheel chair users or pedestrians to use the public right of way.
  • Scooter drivers need to pay particular attention when riding at night because visibility from e-scooter lights is highly limited, making it hard for riders to adequately see the road, as well as potholes or other infrastructure issues that might affect their ride. Similarly, other motorists and roadway users may have difficulty seeing scooter drivers at night, so wearing high-visibility clothing/additional lighting is recommended.

In evaluating the e-scooter pilot in Chicago, the Active Transportation Alliance has recommended Chicago keep the e-scooter program, but with notable changes, including requiring e-scooters to be parked in docks, keeping them out of the downtown central business district, and expanding priority to low-income areas where there are fewer transportation options.

It remains to be seen whether Chicago will stick with e-scooters or decide to ban them, like other cities have done.

Either way, safety must be the priority not only for roadway users but also for infrastructure planners, who are responsible for providing safe roads. Putting safety first will help keep electric scooter riders – and others on the road – safe.

Alex Epstein

Alex Epstein formerly served as director of transportation safety at NSC.

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