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Rentable scooters parked and fully charged off of Cass St. in Pacific Beach. Photo curtesy of Lauren Menno.

Electric Scooters: Are They Hazardous or Helpful?

Electric scooters have proven to be popular among those interested in rentable public transportation, however, there are far more dangers to them especially in a relatively unregulated industry

PACIFIC BEACH, SAN DIEGO- Christopher Conti, president of fitness company, Innovative Solutions Inc., was visiting San Diego March 2019 for the IHRSA fitness convention with his staff. On Wednesday, March 13, 2019, Conti was riding a rentable electric scooter when he lost control of it while attempting to make a left turn and crashed into a tree. Conti was not wearing a helmet and died two days later after suffering serious head injuries.

This was San Diego’s first e-scooter fatality.

What is an e-scooter and how does it work?

An electric scooter, or e-scooter, is a dockless electric kick-scooter that is available for short-term and short-distance rent that charges you based on your distance, location and time of day.

In 2017, electric scooters became one of the newest forms of rentable, public transportation. The most common brands of e-scooters include Birds and Limes, with companies such as Uber and Lyft now having e-scooters of their own as well.

With electric scooters being relatively new in the transportation industry, they have proven to be very popular for people to get around in most urban cities. According to a report by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, or NACTO, Americans rode e-scooters over 86 million times in 2019 alone.

In Pacific Beach, San Diego, they have become popular due to their appeal of ease, convenience and fun when compared to alternative transportation options, according to Jonathen Soden, a frequent e-scooter rider and Pacific Beach local.

“You can find [e-scooters] almost anywhere on the street and once you find one, you don’t have to wait like you would for an Uber. You can just get on and start riding,” Soden said.

In 2018, Bird rose to a $2 billion company, 14 months after its debut. Because Bird was one of the first big name brands to gain traction with e-scooters, it created an impressive impact on the e-scooter industry in that any e-scooter is commonly referred to as a “Bird” or “birding”, even if it is an alternative brand such as a Lime scooter.

“It’s like how you call an Uber an Uber even if you’re taking a Lyft. I don’t think anyone has ever called it “lime-ing” somewhere or e-scootering somewhere. It’s just called birding,” Soden said.

Another unique aspect of e-scooters is the process of parking the scooters. Once a rider is finished or at their destination, they can leave the e-scooter just about anywhere.

From there, each respective company has employees who drive around picking up e-scooters that are laying on the ground to either move them back to a designated area outlined on many street corners, or take them to their personal residence to charge overnight if the scooters are low on battery.

One of many outlined areas for scooters to be parked once fully charged. Photo curtesy of Lauren Menno.

“The job is relatively easy. I just make sure the scooters that are lying around get ridden back to a marked area or corner and if they don’t have any battery left, I take them back to my place to charge overnight.” Jesse Evans, a Lime “Juicer”, said. “And in the morning, I get paid once I drop them off — [it’s] so easy.”

The hidden hazards of e-scooters

Prior to beginning a ride with any e-scooter company, the rider must electronically sign a Renter’s or User’s Agreement via the app.

According to Bird’s and Lime’s Renter’s Agreement, e-scooters are not allowed to be ridden on sidewalks, as they are a safety hazard to pedestrians. It also states that citations can be handed out to riders based on local laws and limitations. In Pacific Beach, citations for e-scooter violations can cost up to $250.

With the sidewalk an invalid option, this leaves e-scooter riders to ride in the bike lane or the street alongside vehicles driving as fast as 40 miles per hour depending on the area of Pacific Beach. According to San Diego City CVC §22411, the speed limit for all e-scooters is 15 miles per hour, with most commercial e-scooters’ maximum speed being 15 miles per hour as well.

However, based on local laws, it is not required that adults wear helmets while riding e-scooters. In fact, as of Jan. 1 2019, California AB 2989 was passed that only minors were required to wear helmets while riding.

Without helmets being part of the law, injuries can be much more severe.

Nursing student Katherine Van Loon works alongside registered nurses and doctors in the emergency room at Sharp hospital as part of her clinical hours. In the ER, Van Loon has seen many injuries involving e-scooters and cars.

“I don’t understand why they would ever repeal the helmet law. The brain is the most important organ of the body and the amount and severity of injuries that I’ve seen because [e-scooter] riders or [automobile] drivers aren’t paying attention is unnecessary…it’s borderline avoidable,” Van Loon said.

As of early 2019 and according to an investigation by Consumer Reports, there were over 1,500 injuries involving rentable e-scooters between 2018 and 2019 alone.

Liability

Another aspect of the User Agreement is in regards to liability. On Bird’s User Agreement, they state that when the user signs, Bird will cover the damages only when occurred at the expense of a faulty scooter. Similarly, Lime’s Renter’s Agreement states that they will not cover damages that occur due to negligent riders.

Additionally, most insurance companies’ automobile policies don’t cover motorized vehicles with less than four wheels. Some renter’s or home insurance policies cover bicycle injuries, however, because e-scooters are motorized, generally that is not covered.

There are some insurance companies that may extend an “umbrella policy” covering a wider range of scenarios for their clients, however, that is completely dependent on the scenario and the company policy.

This means any accidents that may occur at the fault of a rider’s negligence, whether they involve cars, pedestrians or other riders, can come out of the rider’s pocket.

Lauren Tracey, a Pacific Beach local chooses not to ride e-scooters due to potential injuries that could happen.

“I just think that [riding] right next to cars that are going 35 miles per hour — or faster — while you’re going decently fast as well…without a helmet on is extremely dangerous,” Tracey said.

Tracey has also been on the other end of the spectrum: driving a car while next to an e-scooter rider.

“Driving next to them isn’t any less stressful. Most people don’t wear any type of protective gear and I’m scared they’re drunk or going to get too close to my car and get hurt,” Tracey said.

This project was produced by Lauren Menno as a published learning experience in JMS 550 Multimedia News Lab, part of the Journalism and Media Studies Program at San Diego State University.

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Lauren Menno

Lauren Menno

Hi, my name is Lauren Menno and I’m a senior at SDSU! Here you’ll be able to find my journal entries of my progress as I take one of my final courses: JMS 550.