Let's protect our scooter riders

Electric scooters are convenient and even a little fun — until you hit a bump and fall off.

Baltimore residents made scooters popular pretty quickly after the Lime and Bird companies literally plopped them on street corners last summer with no notice. Now city officials, like those in New York, Boston and other places where the scooters have landed, are trying to play catch-up on how to regulate them. And make no mistake about it, the scooters need to be regulated for the safety of those riding them and to protect the city from any liability.

The novelty of the scooters has warn off for some riders who have learned the hard way they are not all that safe. Injured riders are increasingly showing up to emergency rooms and doctors’ officers with bruises, breaks and sprains after having crashed or toppled off the devices. Others are tripping over scooters left haphazardly on sidewalks or even getting hit by scooters.

In what is believed to be the first study of its kind to examine the safety of scooters, researchers at the University of California Los Angeles found that riders were hurt more than those on bicycles or walking. Falls accounted for 80 percent of the injuries of the 249 people admitted to two emergency rooms in Southern California from 2017 to 2018. There were all types of injuries from minor to severe, but nearly 30 percent of those hurt came to a hospital by ambulance, perhaps an indication of more drastic injuries. Head injuries made up 40 percent of emergency room visits. (Doctors even came upon some injuries incurred by those driving a scooter while drunk.)

The scooter companies make customers sign an agreement before riding, agreeing to follow certain rules, such as wearing a helmet. You also aren’t supposed to ride if you are under 18. Lime warns riders on its website 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. But clearly self-regulation is not working. Take a peek on the streets any given day, and just about everyone speeds around helmet-free, hair blowing in the wind. Do we really expect people to carry around helmets in case they spontaneously decide they want to hop on a scooter? Teenagers and younger kids have also been sighted zipping around despite their age.

The city’s transportation department has proposed legislation to push people to adopt safer scooter practices. The legislation would prohibit people from riding while carrying packages if they can’t hold the handlebars or on a street where the speed limit is more than 30 mph. Scooters also wouldn’t be allowed on sidewalks unless the speed limit on the street is more than 30 mph. If riders must use the sidewalk, they can’t go above 6 mph. Riders also can’t ride faster than 15 mph (not much of a restriction, as that is roughly the scooters’ top speed), with another person on the scooter or if they are under 16 years old. Those caught disobeying any of these rules will get a $20 citation.

We don’t think these rules and the penalty for breaking them are unreasonable. (Transportation officials are amending language in the legislation that would have exposed people to a month in jail or a $1,000 fine. That obviously was a mistake to include; nobody should go to jail or get a criminal record for riding a scooter.) The scooter companies are not doing anything to make sure riders abide by the rules. Somebody has to. That said, we need to make sure the fines are given out equitably, given the city’s track record of disproportionate enforcement of other crimes in poor neighborhoods. Don’t give a pass to residents in Canton and not young adults in West Baltimore. The city must also find a way to educate riders about the rules.

Hopefully, the legislation will also help protect the city from liability.The scooter companies are already facing lawsuits for gross negligence. For their part, the companies have passed the buck and suggested that Baltimore and other cities better design their transportation routes rather than focus on penalizing riders. Certainly cities everywhere could make roads more friendly to alternative forms of transportation. But that takes time, money and years of planning — and, as we’ve seen in recent fights over bike lanes, can be controversial. But it’s awfully convenient for the companies that sprang the scooters on this and other cities without warning to complain that they weren’t prepared.

We want to see the scooters work because they do have benefits. Riders can avoid traffic, and it is better for the environment than gas-guzzling cars. It is also a better way to explore the city than by car and cheaper than parking in a city garage. Crucially, it has the potential to alleviate the “last mile” problem in public transit in which buses and rail don’t quite get people to and from their homes and jobs. We know some people will still break the rules. But if new regulations help result in fewer broken bones, bloody bruises and sprained wrists, then we are all for it.

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