A new study released by the University of California has tracked the rate of electric scooter injuries from 2014 to 2018. Findings indicate that the rate of injuries per the number of scooter riders has tripled in that period.

More precisely, the study found that scooter accidents occurred at a rate of 6 per 100,000 scooter rides in 2014.

By 2018, that number had increased to 19 per 100,000 scooter rides.

Furthermore, the rate of head injuries doubled between 2017 to 2018. Such head injuries are the most serious and life-threatening type of electric scooter injuries.

All of this begs the question: Could shared electric scooters be the culprit?

What changed in electric scooters?

Electric scooters have been around for most of the previous decade. But they didn’t start rising in popularity until around 2017 when the first big shared electric scooter companies were established. That timing coincides with an increase in electric scooter injuries.

According to the study:

“There was a dramatic increase in injuries and [hospital] admissions from 2017 to 2018 associated with e-scooter use.”

A consumer-level, privately owned electric scooter (CityRider model)

Until shared e-scooters really took off in early 2018, almost anyone riding an electric scooter also owned the electric scooter. That meant that riders were often more familiar with the vehicle, having practiced riding the same scooter over a period of time.

With shared electric scooters, riders are often jumping onto a new electric scooter for the first time. When changing from one company’s shared electric scooter to another’s, key inputs like throttles and brakes can feel different, making the transition even more confusing.

Additionally, privately owned electric scooters are often ridden closer to home and in less threat-prone environments during the learning period. Riders who buy a new scooter can practice in their driveway, in the street in front of their homes or in a parking lot. But with shared electric scooters, many new riders begin their first ride on a busy downtown street. And with the scooters charging by the minute, it doesn’t provide much incentive to head over to a parking lot for a long, relaxed and easy-going practice session.

Thus, many new riders may find themselves on an unfamiliar electric scooter and lacking the riding experience/skills required to ride safely. Such skills and knowledge vary from person to person and can be as simple as not being aware of the danger of small scooter wheels dropping into potholes. Hazards exist even for more knowledgable riders who might not know how each specific scooter handles during evasive maneuvers, such as if a car suddenly veers into the rider’s lane or pulls out in front of them.

Some scooter companies like Lime provide safety instructions and videos on their websites in an effort to better educate riders. And while this is an important step, it doesn’t replace experience and time on the scooter to help riders become comfortable with how the scooters handle. And most companies also offer free helmets to riders on request. Bird even created a feature to financially incentivize riders to wear helmets by offering a discount if they take a selfie wearing a helmet. But only a small percentage of riders actually wear helmets, and thus most riders take considerable unnecessary risk onto themselves when riding a scooter without head protection.

Example of a helmet provided by Lime

Another factor that could help explain the increased rate of scooter injuries could be the maintenance problems inherent to shared electric scooters. With privately-owned scooters, riders can keep tabs of when the scooter is beginning to show issues and can enact preventative maintenance. Private owners also treat their personal scooters better.

Shared electric scooters, on the other hand, live tough lives. Many get tossed in the back of a truck daily by freelancing chargers. Others get kicked around, dropped down stairs and otherwise treated exactly how you’d expect a rental vehicle to be treated.

Just last week I rented a Bird scooter only to discover that it could only steer left or right, but not straight. I don’t know what someone did to the headset on this thing, but it would only lock into a few steering positions on each side of center. I tried tacking my way down the road like a sailboat before giving up, deeming the scooter to be too dangerous to ride. I used the app to report the scooter as needing maintenance, (I believe I described it as something to the effect of “a danger to the public” in the comment box), and then rated my ride one star. That was about all I could do, short of sitting there all day and warning anyone who approached not to ride this scooter until someone from Bird came to pick it up and repair it (or more likely put it out of its misery, based on the condition it was in).

These types of maintenance issues didn’t exist before shared electric scooters, or at least not to this degree. Very few private owners would let their own expensive scooter get to the point of being unrideable. But countless shared electric scooters get taken out of service every day for serious maintenance issues. And every one of those scooters had a last rider.

I stumbled upon this rental scooter in Paris. It had seen better days. And at least one more wheel.

So what is the solution?

Where do we go from here? Do we swear off electric scooters all together?

No, I don’t think so.

Despite my questions about potential safety concerns of such shared electric scooters, I still believe that they hold tremendous value for cities. They replace cars, reduce pollution, improve traffic flow and are fun to ride.

But I think we also need to find a way to improve the current system. Seated electric scooter companies like Revel offer free, in-person training sessions to help new riders learn to use the vehicles. Each scooter comes with a helmet locked in the vehicle. The seated electric scooter company Wheels even has hygienic helmets with tearaway sanitary liners to help people feel less gross about sharing helmets.

Next, the maintenance of shared electric scooters has to improve. I shouldn’t be able to rent a scooter that challenges me over who is in control of steering.

But it isn’t just the scooters or the companies that provide sharing services that must improve. Our cities also have to become part of the solution.

We need more protected bicycle lanes and car-free zones in cities. We need to fill in potholes that can swallow scooter wheels. We need tougher enforcement against drivers who endanger the lives of cyclists and scooter riders.

There’s a lot that we can improve to reduce the number of injuries caused by alternative transportation. But it is vital that we do because these types of personal electric vehicles are a big part of reshaping our cities into healthier places to live.

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