Is it safe to drive a scooter?
Scooters are the new vehicle on the road, often blamed and shamed, despite their agile and emission-free characteristics. So, how safe are scooters? 5 aspects to take into account.
1. The numbers
Scooter safety is often disputed, so let's look at the numers. A study by the US-based Consumer Reports reported 1,545 scooter-related accidents in the US since 2017.
One of the big scooter sharing companies, Bird, concluded in its recently published safety report that riders of e-scooter don't face a disproportionate risk compared to other modes of travel. Bird goes on to claim that scooters have a similar injury rate to bicycling, which is correlated with the bicycling safety score of the cities. The report concludes: "Taking the numbers reported by Consumer Reports of 1,545 e-scooter injuries over the past year, more people are injured by motor vehicles in three hours in the United States than are injured by e- scooters in a year."
Moreover, they argue that since cars are the main cause for pedestrian fatalities and e-scooters replace a significant portion of car trips – 30% on average – scooters indirectly increase road safety.
2. The law
Scooters appear to have come overnight, piling up on the pavements with discarded vehicles, and competing with cyclists and pedestrians for their spot on the road. As a consequence, many cities removed scooters from their streets and introduced licences scooter companies had to apply for.
The UK is one of the few exceptions where scooters are still illegal, since they are not allowed to run on the road, nor on the pavement, as scooters are classified as motor vehicles and the UK Highways Act of 1835 bars such vehicles from pavements. So, there is litterally no place for scooters to go. Nevertheless, legislation is in the works to make scooter sharing legal.
Another legal uncertainty about scooters concerns helmets. Wearing helmets can prevent serious injuries and/or fatalities as with other mobility modes, yet the helmet for scooter drivers is not required by transportation authorities nor by scooter companies.
On the other side of the spectrum is Madrid, which encourages scooter mobility actively, albeit within a specific regulatory framework. Scooters cannot ride on pavements, bus lanes and streets with more than one lane in each direction. In addition, they cannot go faster than 30 km/h, and must give way to pedestrians. Additionally, all scooter companies must apply for a licence before they can deploy their scooters on the streets.
3. The drivers
Yet, besides a legislative framework – which is lacking in many cities – driver behaviour and the way scooter companies encourage safe driving is equally important.
Various scooter companies, for instance, distributed free helmets or arranged price deals with helmet providers for their drivers. Nevertheless, wearing a helmet or not remains the driver's personal choice. In addition many scooter companies provide safety advice on their website, in the app and even on labels on the scooters, but it is again up to the driver to follow these safety guidelines.
Some companies go a bit further and set specific rules to increase safety. Bird, for instance, ceases its operations after midnight – after which the highest rate of traffic incidents appears – and has an age limit for minors – since half of the accidents are with under 14 year olds involved.
4. Safety features
In addition, many scooter companies are increasing safety by sharing data with city officials, so cities can detect and improve unsafe spots in the traffic system. Bird launched a Respect the Ride campaign, devoted over $3 million for marketing, outreach and education, and introduced a reporting tool in its app to report unsafe parking behaviour.
On the hardware side there are some safety updates such as durable brakes, reinforced hardware, permanent lighting and reflectors, some even have bells to alert other road users, and Bird has implemented a feature to cap speed if necessary.
5. Hardware and software
Since we are talking about a new mobility mode, scooters still face some teething troubles not only related to legislation and driver behaviour, but also to hardware and software, making them less safe.
In February, for instance, Lime removed its scooters from the streets, having detected a firmware bug that caused scooters to brake suddenly when they were riding downhill at top speed and hit an obstacle. A software update fixed the problem, but the story is illustrative for the software and hardware issues the new mobility modes are still facing.
Overall, there may be rumours that scooters are unsafe but by the numbers don't bear out that they are more unsafe than any other kind of mobility mode. Nevertheless, the fact that they are new on the streets affects their safety because of teething troubles, driver behaviour, their place on the road compared to other road users and the legislative framework. However, these are all issues that can be addressed relatively easily.