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Not-so-easy riders 

What can cities do to make e-scooters safer?

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click to enlarge Scooter riders on Milwaukee Avenue in West Town - JOHN GREENFIELD
  • Scooter riders on Milwaukee Avenue in West Town
  • John Greenfield

Thankfully, I haven't heard about any critical injuries to riders of Chicago's rentable electric scooters since the city's pilot program launched on June 15. Since then, 2,500 vehicles from ten different companies have been scattered across the west- and northwest-side test zone.

But Dr. Adam Black, who runs the emergency department at AMITA Health Saints Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center in West Town, a hot spot for the gadgets, says his ER has seen "some really ugly fractures" from e-scooter crashes. These have included broken hips, compound fractures (in which the end of a broken bone protrudes through the victim's skin), and "one really unlucky rider with multiple extremities with fractures." Black estimated that the medical center is currently treating one scooter patient a day. He said most of the victims were struck by turning drivers who didn't notice them, or they wiped out on potholes or other bumps in the road.

My goal in sharing this info isn't to scare you away from the new technology; it's to make sure we all keep our eyes wide open to its negative impacts. I actually think e-scooters have many possible benefits for cities like Chicago. They have the potential to replace private car and ride-hailing trips, especially on first- and last-mile journeys to and from transit stations. They can improve transportation access in underserved neighborhoods. And they may be helpful in building political support for more protected, car-free lanes, since their zippy, sweat-free rides may appeal to folks who would never consider bike commuting.

To get a sense of the relative safety of bike-share systems like Chicago's Divvy versus rentable scooters, I pored over news reports and compiled what I believe are the most comprehensive lists of apparently unintentional U.S. fatalities (e.g., excluding two Citi Bike users who died in a 2017 New York terrorist attack) for each mode to date.

Since large-scale bike share launched in this country in September 2010, the following fatalities have occurred.

July 1, 2016: Virginia Murray, 25, was riding a Divvy at Belmont and Sacramento in Chicago when a turning flatbed truck driver struck her.

June 11, 2017: Dan Hanegby, 36, was riding a Citi Bike in New York when a bus driver struck him.

March 8, 2019: Tess Rothstein, 30, was riding an electrical-assist Ford GoBike in San Francisco when a box truck driver fatally struck her.

June 4, 2019: Victor Ang died from injuries sustained in April when he was riding a Citi Bike in New York and a UPS semi driver struck him.

Large-scale scooter share appeared on U.S. sidewalks by January 2018. Since then, the following scooter-share deaths have occurred.

February 1, 2018: Mark Sands, 21, was riding a Lime scooter against traffic in Austin, Texas, when an Uber driver struck him.

September 1, 2018: Jacoby Stoneking, 24, was riding a Lime scooter in Dallas when he fell and was later found unresponsive in the road with a head injury.

September 21, 2018: Carlos Sanchez-Martin, 20, was riding a Lime scooter in Washington, D.C., when an SUV driver struck him.

December 22, 2018: Esteban Galindo, 26, was riding a Bird scooter in Chula Vista, California, when a car driver struck him.

March 13, 2019: Christopher Conti, 53, was killed in San Diego when he crashed into a tree while riding a Bird scooter on the sidewalk.

April 5, 2019: Evan Dyer Faram, 31, was riding a rented scooter in LA when an intoxicated hit-and-run pickup driver struck him.

April 23, 2019: Caiden Reyes-Ortiz, 5, was riding on a Lime scooter with his mother in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when he fell off and a car driver struck him.

May 16, 2019: Brady Gaulke, 26, was riding a Bird scooter in Nashville with a blood-alcohol level of more than twice the legal limit when an SUV driver struck him.

May 16, 2019: Eric Amis, Jr., 20, was riding a Lime scooter in Atlanta when a car driver struck him.

July 17, 2019: William "Brad" Alexander, 37, was riding a Bird scooter in Atlanta when a turning bus driver struck him.

July 27, 2019: Amber Ford, 34, was riding a Bird scooter in Atlanta when a hit-and-run driver struck her.

August 6: Quienterry McGriff was riding a scooter in the Atlanta suburb of East Point, Georgia, when he ran a red light and collided with an oil truck.

August 9: Cameron Hagan, 26, died from injuries sustained five days earlier when he was riding a Lyft scooter against traffic in Denver and a car driver struck him.

Since U.S. bike share has seen four unintentional deaths in about nine years, while there have been 13 such rentable scooter fatalities in roughly 19.5 months, that means there have been about 18 times as many scooter fatalities per year as bike-share deaths.

Granted, that's not a true apples-to-apples comparison, but even if we look at trip data, scooters still have an exponentially worse safety record. According to data from the National Association of City Transportation Officials, between 2010 and 2018 there was roughly one death per 84.25 million bike-share trips. Meanwhile, in 2018, the first year of large-scale scooter share, there was about one fatality per 9.63 million trips—roughly nine times the fatality rate of bike share.

Scooter advocates may take issue with the nuts and bolts of my analysis. But with nine unintentional U.S. e-scooter deaths so far this year alone, it's clear that scooters have a terrible track record for safety compared to bike share. (Although, in fairness, studies have found private bikes are also somewhat less safe than bike share.) The reasons why seem fairly obvious.

Traditional bike-share cycles are heavy and slow, while typical e-scooters do 15 mph with no effort from the rider. The bikes are stable and give the rider a low center of gravity, while a person standing on a scooter can easily fly over the handlebars. Bike-share cycles have large wheels with fat tires, while the small wheels on most scooters are prone to crashes on poor pavement.

The high-visibility bikes are easy for drivers to see, while a person on a scooter is less noticeable to motorists, especially from the side. And while many bike-share users have years of experience navigating city traffic, almost no scooter riders do.

It must be noted that the current citywide Divvy expansion is phasing in e-bikes that have an electrical assist that allows them to top off at 18 mph, which could lead to more crashes. And many of the problems with standing scooters could be addressed by switching to seated models with larger wheels. In fact, that describes the vehicles used by Wheels, one of the companies participating in the Chicago pilot.

More education and outreach about safe scooter riding practices could also help level the playing field. The city of Chicago recently announced a series of new safety training sessions.

It's also important to remember that unsafe driving is Chicago's most urgent traffic safety problem, with 41 people walking and five people on bikes fatally struck in 2018. By replacing car trips, scooters can be part of the solution—as long they're preventing more injuries and deaths than they're causing.

"More time and data is needed for a thorough understanding of e-scooter safety," noted Active Transportation Alliance spokesman Kyle Whitehead. But he added that building more car-free lanes would be a win for both cyclists and scooteristas. "The scooter injuries further demonstrate the need to redesign city streets and provide more protected space for vulnerable users." v

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