E-Scooters: Navigating a new era in transportation proving to be a struggle Thursday, August 15, 2019
By Nicole Gearing
Step onto a sidewalk and you can’t miss them – the swarm of rental e-scooters and e-bikes that have descended on cities from California to the Carolinas. Tourists love them, as do lots of locals. They’re gig-economy fun! They’re the “final-mile” commuter solution!
But this zippy micromobility movement has also created problems. Parked scooters can be a tripping hazard for young and old. Sidewalks have become impromptu scooter freeways, imperiling pedestrians. Crashes caused by mechanical failures and poor maintenance have sent riders to the emergency room. There have even been deaths.
Cities, counties and states across the nation have been struggling to catch up. By the start of 2019, 44 bills pertaining to micromobility transportation had been introduced by 26 states. California – home base to the micromobility industry and its largest customer – has seen two bills this year, AB 1112 and AB 1286. Both reached the second house only to be stalled by lobbyists for Uber, Lime, Bird and other big players in the micromobility industry.
The surge in micromobility bills is not random, but rather a direct response to media reports of injuries and transportation violations occurring daily.
These companies market e-scooters and bikes as an easy and environmentally conscious way to get around town. The rental process starts with the click of a button on an e-commerce company’s app. The rider is directed to the nearest available scooter or bike, and they simply hop on, ride to their intended destination and press “end ride,” freeing the scooter for the next rider.
E-scooters and bikes have been a major hit with tourists and local workers looking for a quick way to zip around town without a big boost in their carbon footprint.
Chances are you’ve heard a story or two of someone taking a spill on these e-scooters. And chances are those stories don’t have a happy ending, with bumps, road rash or worse – the sorts of injuries that require hospital care and result in renters thinking long and hard about their legal options.
Not many are ending up in lawsuits, even when a mechanical failure causes a crash. Eager to limit their liability risk, micromobility companies have pounced on consumers’ lackadaisical nature when agreeing to terms and conditions by planting legal waivers deep in the bowels of lengthy on-line rental agreements that can send eyes spinning.
The rental agreements for e-scooters often exceed 18,000 words, spilling over numerous pages, and for the average consumer are impossible to comprehend. By agreeing to the terms and conditions, riders are signing away their rights to recover against the company if they are injured, or someone injures them, while using a rental e-scooters.
Amid a proliferation of e-scooter crashes resulting in rider hospitalizations and in the worst cases fatalities, personal injury attorney Karina Perez stresses the importance of carrying personal health insurance. Car insurance will not cover riders on scooters, leaving those injured with hefty medical bills.
In California, Assembly Bill 1286 calls for micromobility providers to carry no less than $1 million in commercial general liability insurance and at least $5 million in aggregate insurance for all occurrences during the policy period. AB 1286 also prohibits the gig economy firms that rent e-scooters from including waivers of legal rights in their voluminous electronic rental contracts, giving injured riders their day in court.
Meanwhile, the casualties keep piling up.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found for every 100,000 e-scooter trips there are roughly 14.3 injuries, with head injuries accounting for 45%, upper extremity injuries totaling to 27% and lower body injuries amounting to 12%.
A recent study by Consumer Reports found that at least eight people died while using a rented e-scooter since the fall of 2017, while another 1,500 were injured, including some who were left paralyzed. More than one in four users were unaware of traffic laws for scooters and bikes, contributing to accidents on the road, the study found.
The uncertainty comes in part from a lack of uniformity among micromobility laws. In California, Assembly Bill 1112 seeks to end that inconsistency by recognizing e-scooters as a universal concern and applying uniform regulations to every county and city in the state. AB 1112, like AB 1286, is currently stalled in the California Senate due to stiff lobbying resistance by the micromobility industry.
Cities across the country have only recently begun enforcing regulations and coordinating with local transportation authorities as e-scooters have been seen on busy sidewalks and undesignated areas, placing pedestrians and drivers at risk.
In Florida, Tampa General Hospital saw a 500% increase in accidents involving scooters over the last year. A report from two university hospitals in Los Angeles, meanwhile, found that 249 patients had been treated in a single year for scooter injuries, with more than 40% involving head injuries.
In California, helmets are not required by law while riding a scooter, though micromobility firms like Lime and Bird suggest their use on their websites. They also have a minimum age requirement of 18 with the rider being required to hold a valid driver’s license. Neither of these requirements, unfortunately, are enforced. Most riders don’t wear helmets, and those under age 18 are common with the proliferation of on-line forms of payment.
Look no further than South Lake Tahoe, Calif. for how the worst can happen. In July, a 13-year-old boy was struck by a car while riding a Lime scooter on busy Highway 50. The boy, accompanied by six other scooter-riding kids all around the same age, suffered a head injury but survived.
In response to such problems, Lime and Bird have launched Public Safety Advisory Boards to determine what research and policy initiatives to pursue, what regulations to advocate and smooth out their relationships with cities and riders. Lime representatives said the firm provided 250,000 free helmets to riders, while Bird said it had invested upwards of $3 million in training programs for riders.
Meanwhile, some of the firms have stepped up efforts to better maintain their scooter fleets.
It would be ignorant to assume that most e-scooter accidents are caused by mechanical malfunctions and not the variable of human error. But far too many injuries are caused by poor maintenance of the scooters that can put riders in a perilous situation.
Lawrence Russo, 47, learned it the hard way while riding an e-scooter during a visit to San Diego. As he started down a steep hill, Russo realized his brakes were totally gone. With the e-scooter accelerating downhill, Russo had a choice – try to ride it out to the bottom, or veer toward a street-side lawn to try to stop.
He doesn’t remember which he chose. Russo awoke in a hospital emergency room with no recollection of what happened. Doctors told him he was lucky to be alive, and that he had crashed toward the bottom of the hill. Russo suffered injuries to his hands, arms and legs, as well as a head injury leaving him with lasting cognitive problems even though he was wearing a helmet.
Adding insult to his injuries, Russo was unable to hold the scooter rental company accountable because of liability waiver in their online rental agreement.
Personal injury lawyers across the nation see cases similar to Russo’s all too frequently, but are left with a tough legal hill to surmount in hopes of holding micromobility firms accountable for even the most egregious accidents caused by shoddy maintenance or a catastrophic mechanical failure.
But as legislation around the country moves forward and a shift in public sentiment takes hold, consumers can hope for justice as the micromobility industry faces up to its responsibility to ensure the safety of riders.