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Recent media coverage of e-scooters has been focusing on the dangers inherent in riding them.
“They have been pouring into emergency rooms around the nation all summer,” wrote Peter Holley in the Washington Post, subsequently quoted in the Sacramento Bee, “their bodies bearing a blend of injuries that doctors normally associate with victims of car wrecks.”
“Injuries are coming in fast and furious,” said Michael Sise, chief of medical staff at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, noting that his team saw four severe scooter injuries last week. “It’s just a matter of time before someone is killed. I’m absolutely certain of it.”
The piece is accompanied by a photo of a gravely injured man in a neck brace with a breathing tube. The article quotes several sources, including a former mechanic for Bird Scooters, who charge that rental electric scooters are poorly maintained by untrained mechanics.
The article implies that the sources of e-scooter injuries it identifies– “34 serious accidents” in Santa Monica, “ten severe injuries a week” at an unnamed emergency room in San Francisco—are the scooters themselves. Yet it doesn’t do more than quote emergency room doctors, and provides no real information about the causes of all those injuries.
But deep in the Washington Post article, the author off-handedly mentions a different potential cause. Washington, D.C., says the Post, “has seen a slight rise in injuries related to electric scooters since their introduction but not one as significant as in other cities, a doctor at George Washington University Hospital said — possibly because of the proliferation of bike lanes in the city” (emphasis added).
Nevertheless, both the Post and the Sacramento Bee claim that a bill currently awaiting its fate on Governor Brown’s desk, A.B. 2989, could make things worse. That bill would allow adults to ride scooters without wearing helmets–putting e-scooters on an equal footing with bicycles and electric bicycles.
Every Streetsblog site has written this summer about e-scooters: how popular they are; how hated they are; their benefits; the struggles to regulate them; the problems with existing regulations; statewide efforts to find solutions.
And each time Streetsblog writers have pointed out another bit of obviousness: right now, it’s a rare city that has a safe place to ride these newfangled machines. If more cities had good, safe bike infrastructure that people on e-scooters could share, how would that affect all those injuries that are “piling up,” as the Post puts it?
It’s easy for people to believe that helmets would make all the difference here. But requiring helmets is a distraction from the real source of danger for riders, and everyone else on the road: the drivers of the vehicles they are forced to share road space with.
Requiring helmets could slow the adoption of relatively low-speed, clean-energy ways of getting around cities that could help cut congestion if they were encouraged and given a safe place to ride. That goes for bikes as well as e-scooters, and is one of the reasons bike helmet laws haven’t gone anywhere in recent years. If riders must wear helmets, those who don’t are very visible and are easy to catch and ticket—much easier to see and cite than drivers who text, an activity that is actually deadly.
Another reason those laws have gone nowhere is that research keeps showing that helmet laws don’t produce the safety benefits people think they do.
As Streetsblog California has pointed out, it’s worth a reminder that A.B. 2989 includes the following provision:
- This state has severe traffic congestion and air pollution problems, particularly in its cities, and finding ways to reduce these problems is of paramount importance.
- [Electric] scooters. . . produce no emissions and, therefore, do not contribute to increased air pollution or increase traffic congestion.
- It is the intent of the Legislature in adding this article to promote the use of alternative low-emission or no-emission transportation.
E-scooters are not the silver bullet that can solve every transportation problem we face, but they, like bikes, have the potential to replace travel in heavy gas-powered cars with lightweight electric conveyances, which could help accomplish a lot of good environmental goals.
A.B. 2989’s fate will be decided some time before the end of September.