I have been reading lots of reports from the US about e-scooters recently.
The scooters I am referring to are those small wheeled devices that children typically ride about on and they use one foot for power – not what the rest of the world calls a scooter i.e. a Vespa or Lambretta style machine. An e-scooter is a battery powered version of the smaller machine with about a 20km range.
In many cities across the world, the business of rental bicycles has been expanded with hundreds of bicycles randomly placed all over urban areas and in many cities they have been vandalised or simply binned by councils who objected to them! In some cities like Melbourne, they ended up in the local river.
In San Francisco, as an example, several companies have been founded to operate a similar business model for e-scooters. As they have a limited range, the rental companies advise the users to simply abandon the scooter when the battery dies and an employee will find and recharge them overnight! Not a very practical model when you think about it.
Officially, a renter must obey many rules when they use the machines, namely be over 18, wear a helmet, don’t ride down footpaths and have a driver’s licence. That means that they are sharing the same area as much larger vehicles! The issues that the reports are highlighting a concern for human safety. The contract that the user signs states that the rider has no right to sue the operator for any injuries and as the riders are humans, that means they will ignore most of the safety warnings! This has lead to an ever increasing number of accidents that result in injuries such as broken wrists, arms and ribs. In a country where medical bills can escalate quite quickly, it turns out that any insurance the user holds is likely to be invalidated by riding an e-scooter.
The fundamental issue is that these machines are smaller than everything else on the roads and are difficult to see. There has been no regulations defined for usage and it is a fast growing market for rentals – so much so that Uber is getting in on the act. Bird and Lime, two of the rental companies apparently launched in San Francisco without advising the city council, who promptly impounded the e-scooters when they realised what was going on!
Bird and others are lobbying city councils in California to change the laws to allow no helmets, an increase in speed and usage of the e-scooters on footpaths. All these sound like a recipe for disaster and more injuries. The reality is that cities need more bicycle and scooter paths away from bigger traffic such that similar vehicles travelling at the same speeds are in the same area.
I also suspect that it won’t take too long before an enterprising insurance company comes up with a policy that is specific to rental bicycle and e-scooter users – with the terms skewed towards themselves, naturally.