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Electric scooters are igniting new laws, liability concerns and even "scooter rage"

Why electric scooters are facing a backlash
  • The 15-mile-per-hour vehicles are often driven on sidewalks, leading to accidents with pedestrians and even other e-scooters.
  • Auto insurance policies generally exclude liability coverage for vehicles with fewer than four wheels.
  • Safety requirements for rentable scooters are based on an honor system.

Visit a major city like Washington, D.C., and you'll quickly discover there's a new way to get around town – the electric scooter, or e-scooter. Ironically, you may learn about these 15-mile-per-hour vehicles the hard way, given they are increasingly involved in close calls with pedestrians, strollers and cars.

Last year, e-scooters zoomed past station-based rental bikes as the most popular form of shared "micro-mobility" transportation, with rental companies like Lime and Bird renting 85,000 e-scooters across the country, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials. 

But that surge in popularity has come with some growing pains. A recent study by Consumer Reports shows that at least eight people died while using a rented e-scooter since the fall of 2017, while another 1,500 were injured, including some who were paralyzed.

As a result, some urban areas nationwide are slapping new regulations on e-scooters -- and the two major companies that rent them. In Portland, Oregon, residents have resorted to "scooter rage," venting their frustrations by dumping them in the Willamette River.

Aside from the backlash, riders need to be aware that they are taking some risks when they ride e-scooters, including the possibility they might not be covered by their auto policy in case of an accident. 

Scofflaws

The idea of people navigating overcrowded cities without driving fossil fuel-burning cars appeals to the environmentally conscious. The vehicles also attract people who are pressed for time, since an e-scooter can travel four times faster than a pedestrian. Services like Lime use an easy payment service that's similar to Citi Bike rentals.

So, what's not to love? To begin with, not all riders obey the regulations. E-scooter users are supposed to be at least 18 years old, have a driver's license, ride alone and wear a helmet. But in reality, many riders, including parents with children, are "ride-sharing" the vehicles' narrow running board. And kids sometimes use them as modified skateboards, jumping them over curbs, ignoring helmet laws, and getting into accidents.

Grievances include e-scooters abandoned on private driveways or sidewalks until other users find them and ride off.

As a result, some local lawmakers are pushing to ban what they see as a pedestrian menace.

The mayor of Nashville, Tennessee, has already asked city lawyers to draft legislation to ban e-scooters. Washington, D.C.'s Council is proposing a ban on operating e-scooters during the night, changing speed limits and opening a 24-hour complaint line. And one Atlanta suburb has issued a total moratorium on them.

Sidewalk sharing?

Some cities are struggling to find a way to make it work. And that's not easy, because rules vary across the country. Theoretically e-scooters shouldn't be ridden on sidewalks, particularly at high speeds, since they could pose a risk to pedestrians. 

But in reality, e-scooters are most often found on sidewalks because that's where an e-scooter rider feels safest. Here they avoid the street potholes, double-parked cars and worst of all, getting "doored" by motorists getting into or leaving their cars. Bike lanes help, but many cities, even in environmentally friendly California, don't have them, according to a Sonoma State University study.

Liability problems

Another problem for riders is liability in case of an accident. Not all cities have the same insurance standards for e-scooter companies, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners points out. 

Dock-free electric scooters Lime-S by California-based bicycle sharing service Lime are stacked on Parisian cobblestones in a street of Paris
Dock-free electric scooters Lime-S by California-based bicycle sharing service Lime are stacked on Parisian cobblestones in a street of Paris, France, May 19, 2019. Picture taken May 19, 2019. Christian Hartmann / REUTERS

Both Bird and Lime's rental agreements state that "the riders relieve the company of liability." Even though a rider's lawyers could challenge that, particularly if they can prove the e-scooter was in some way defective, demonstrating that an e-scooter was defective could be challenging if the scooter was abandoned on the street after multiple users.

Consumers should also be aware their auto policy won't cover them, said Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, which represents auto and home insurers. "Auto insurance policies generally exclude liability coverage for less than four wheels," she said.

Those who plan to rent an e-scooter can purchase scooter insurance, and regular riders might want to increase their "umbrella" coverage, which protects policyholders against perils not covered by other policies, Worters added.

Rules of the road

Attorneys claim the rules of the road are still too lax for e-scooters. There's no safety inspection or instruction, nor any barrier to prevent a 14-year-old from riding a scooter, critics said. First-time riders receive no training, other than what they find on a website. 

"Safety requirements for rentable scooters are based on an honor system," says Jordan Harlan, an attorney with Harlan Law in San Diego, where scooters overwhelm both the boardwalk and beachfront. 

Traumatic e-scooter brain injury highlights need for helmets

E-scooter rental company Bird noted that bicycles have "similar vulnerabilities" (although bikes are less likely to be on sidewalks). By replacing cars with e-scooters, Bird claims that it may actually lower pedestrian deaths, according to an April safety report. Lime could not be reached for comment, but it offers safety tips on its website.

Collisions between e-scooters and cars can be particularly damaging. "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has established that mopeds and scooters are responsible for over 20% of traumatic brain injuries," Harlan said.

If an e-scooter rider is injured, his or her best hope is that they have health insurance that will handle their medical treatment, if not the loss of income. But that's unlikely to concern a teenager zipping down a city sidewalk at 15 miles per hour. So, it's up to urban pedestrians to watch out for e-scooters, since their electric motors can be very quiet.