In the past year, electric, shared scooters have sprouted like weeds on corners in cities as varied as San Diego, Detroit, and Barcelona. Riders have hopped aboard, neighborhood groups have objected to the scooter companies’ business models, and policymakers are contemplating rules. But another group—emergency-room doctors—is raising an important question: Are these things safe?
Aarian Marshall covers autonomous vehicles, transportation policy, and urban planning for WIRED.
New research suggests that, yes, people are getting hurt on scooters. (And worse: At least six people have died in the US in scooter-related crashes.) The study, a joint effort between the public health department of Austin, Texas, and the Centers for Disease Control, took a close look at scooter injuries in the scoot-soaked city between September and November 2018. In 182,333 hours and 891,121 miles of riding, the researchers found 190 injuries requiring hospitalization, half of which were to the head. Fifteen percent of those injuries involved a traumatic brain injury. Just one of the injured riders—less than 1 percent of those injured—was wearing a helmet when the injury occurred.
So protect that head, the city says. “A helmet is recommended for safety in riding a scooter or a bicycle,” says Marissa Monroy, the city transportation department’s communications head, though she notes no city rules require riders to do so. Austin City Council may discuss new scooter guidelines at the end of May, when it meets to discuss its broader dockless mobility program.
For riders, the recommendation seems much easier heard than followed. Spontaneity is baked into the scooter-share experience, with riders sometimes only deciding to grab a scoot if they see one. Helmets, meanwhile, are bulky, and can be difficult to carry around. Companies like Closca have introduced collapsible helmets, and at least one dockless bike-share company, Wheels, says it will lock free helmets to each of its frames. Bird, one of the largest scooter-share companies, has sent free helmets to 65,000 riders who have requested them. (The requester pays postage.) But helmets have not caught on everywhere.
Austin’s injury report seems to comport with the conclusions of another study of scooter injuries, in Los Angeles, published in January in the journal JAMA Network Open. In that research, doctors examined the 249 scooter-riding patients who ended up in two LA-area emergency rooms between September 2017 and August 2018, and found head injuries were the most common injuries reported. (Five were hospitalized with intracranial hemorrhage.) Just five of the 100 patients admitted with head injuries were reported as wearing helmets.
“The public health impact of scooters will only grow larger as more and more people start using them,” Tarak Trivedi, an emergency physician and the lead author of the LA study, told WIRED in January. “I think there’s potential for injury, and we should all be aware and keep that in mind as we design our cities and transportation systems.”
Companies like Lime, Bird, Uber, Lyft, and Spin have said they’re working to improve the safety of their vehicles. Most companies either disburse or give riders discounts on helmets. (Seattle’s short-lived bike-share program even experimented with free helmet kiosks.) And most have pledged to build hardier scooters, custom-built to survive for longer periods on city streets.
While more and better cycling and scooter infrastructure, like protected lanes, might be welcomed by riders and companies, both the Austin and LA studies suggest that won’t prevent all scootering injuries. Seventy-four percent of the injuries studied in LA involved falls, and just 8 percent were reported as the result of a collision with another vehicle. Just 16 percent of the injury incidents in Austin during the study period involved other motorized vehicles.
Those most likely to tip over? New riders. A full third of those injured during scooter rides were on their first trips. Fifteen percent had taken more than 30. Sixty percent of injured riders later told investigators they had received in-app training from scooter providers before riding, but “additional training may be necessary, “ the Austin report says.
For Austin, this research is a starting point. Eventually, city officials hope to better understand how scooters are operating on its streets. But before they can do that, the city needs to come up with smarter ways to collect data on scooter incidents. The report does not compare injured scooter-riders with uninjured ones, nor does it compare the rate of injury on scooters to injuries on bikes, in cars, or other ways of getting around. According to a crash database maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation, 10,613 people and 4,078 vehicles were involved in crashes in the city of Austin during the study period.
The report’s numbers are conservative, its authors note, because it only captures those who sought medical care at an emergency department. “We want to get to the point where our EMS folks out there can check this mode of transportation [after an incident] when they fill out their forms, the same way they can check for an 18-wheeler or a motorcycle,” says Jen Samp, a spokesperson for the city’s public health department. The CDC may continue its work in e-scooters, as well.
And at least one company says it wants to learn from the research. “We plan to apply the insights provided by Austin Public Health’s report to our global operations, marketing campaigns, public affairs and rider education initiatives while we also further raise the bar for vehicle safety," Paul Steely White, Bird’s safety policy director, said in a statement.
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