Whisking along on an electric scooter headed to a concert in the Inner Harbor last month, Alex Martin hit an uneven space in the sidewalk and toppled over, landing hard on his right wrist.
After wearing a cast for several weeks, the 23-year-old Federal Hill resident is now scheduled for surgery to fix a broken bone and a possible torn ligament. And he’s over the scooter craze.
“I don’t think I will be riding in the city again,” he said.
The electric Bird and Lime scooters have become wildly popular since they hit Baltimore streets, with people taking more than a quarter of a million rides in the first month and a half of the pilot program. But some riders are discovering they can be hazardous.
It is hard to tell exactly how many people are wiping out and getting hurt because there is no good way now to track accidents. The scooter companies are supposed to report injuries to the city, but have yet to. City transportation officials said many people might not tell the company if they are hurt while riding, so accidents may never get recorded. The scooter companies require people to report accidents to the local police, but many might not.
Hospitals also aren’t officially recording the number of injuries, but some emergency room and orthopedic doctors said they have started to see a surge since the scooters came to town. Patients are showing up with broken bones, bad bruises and scrapes. Some complain about concussion symptoms like headaches, dizziness and feeling dazed after a crash.
“We have had a whole bunch of injuries,” said Dr. Babar Shafiq, a Johns Hopkins Hospital orthopedic trauma surgeon. “Most of them are ankles and knees. Both fractures and dislocations.”
Most of the patients he has seen have bungled the dismount. Riders clip a pothole or try to avoid hitting something in their pathway and can’t get off the scooter quickly enough. The scooters look fun and easy to ride, but take some skill, said Shafiq, who also has seen collarbone and elbow fractures.
Dr. Brian J. Browne, who works in the emergency room at the University of Maryland Medical Center, said he and his colleagues have treated several patients injured while operating scooters, including a 70-year-old woman who was thrown off after hitting an uneven spot in the pavement. She broke her thumb, wrist and elbow, and suffered lacerations on her face.
“The more people who are using them, the more problems that will show up,” said Browne, who is also a professor and chairman of the department of emergency medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “They look really great as they are zipping along. But people need to be cautious. They are really lightweight and hitting any small thing could throw you off.”
Lime and Bird tell people they should wear a helmet when they register to use the service on the companies’ apps. The companies do not provide the helmets and few people bring their own. The companies, which are responsible for operations of the scooter program, did not return several messages regarding injuries.
Riders also must have a driver’s license and be 18 years of age. Lime warns riders not to perform stunts on the scooters, while Bird tells riders to keep both feet on the vehicle at all times. Riders are also told to be aware of road obstructions or uneven surfaces.
When customers sign up they agree to a waiver absolving the companies of injury liability.
Nya Dobbs wasn’t wearing a helmet when she hit a pothole in Federal Hill while riding for fun with a friend one Saturday afternoon last month. Video footage she got from a nearby apartment complex shows Dobbs speeding along when she is suddenly thrown off the scooter, landing on her left hip. She looks startled as she immediately jumps up and scrambles back onto the scooter.
Doctors had to drain blood from a softball-sized hematoma from the hip of the 24-year-old athletic trainer who said she doesn’t plan on hopping back onto one of the scooters anytime soon. Yet she acknowledged that the scooter companies do warn users to ride safely and that she knows there is the potential for accidents.
“I think it just comes with the territory,” Dobbs said. “Bird and Lime suggest wearing a helmet and other safety precautions when you sign up. Accidents happen. Riders just need to be aware of all their surroundings, which can get hard.”
The city’s Department of Transportation is planning a social media campaign centered around how to ride dockless vehicles safely and trying to figure out better ways to monitor accidents and evaluate other areas of the program. The scooter program is a pilot that runs through February and changes could be made to the program if it becomes permanent.
Cities around the country are grappling with the legalities of scooter programs and how to regulate them . It is unclear if the cities themselves could be liable for injuries sustained by residents. State law requires riders under 16 to wear helmets.
“That is something that is also a question nationwide,” said Meg Young, Baltimore’s shared mobility coordinator. “Other cities are going through the court system to see who is responsible. … That is still a gray area.”
Many jurisdictions have sued the companies to block them from putting scooters on their streets. A class action lawsuit filed in California goes after the companies for injuries sustained by people who have been hit by the scooters.
Young said Baltimore’s program is widely popular and the city would like to see it work if it can be done so riders are safe.
“We are just trying to make sure that we evaluate this program thoroughly,” she said.
Shafiq, the orthopedic surgeon at Hopkins, said more data needs to be collected about the risks and dangers. Stronger warnings about the risk of injuries and how to prevent them are needed as well, he said.
“I think people need to be warned about the risks and I don’t know if that can be fairly done until we know the data and what the risks are,” he said.
Dr. Keith Segalman, a surgeon with The Curtis National Hand Center at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital who treated Martin, said riders should probably be wearing knee and wrist guards as well as helmets. He has seen wrist injuries because riders use their hands to brace themselves when they fall and hit the ground.
“If you are moving that fast you should have on a helmet or other protective gear,” Segalman said. “You are not going not let your kid ride a bicycle as fast as they can without a helmet.”