A few years ago, “birding around Santa Monica” would have had a whole different meaning. The introduction of dockless scooter-sharing has meant a lot of things to a lot of people. Some view Bird and Lime-S as making huge strides towards democratizing transportation; others consider it not a black and white issue, but a green one — a crest in the fourth wave of environmental innovation as technology looks to reinvent the paradigmatic wheel of single-occupancy travel. The National Audubon Society, for its part, is probably none too pleased with the newest definition of the word birding (who could blame them), while many city residents see the gaggles of Birds (bushels of Lime-S?) crowding their sidewalks as nothing short of an invasion.
And then there’s the CDC, and hospital staffs, and us — far more worried instead about the personal injury hazard these electric scooters pose.
So concerned is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, explained a spokeswoman for the agency, that it has teamed up with the Austin Public Health Department to “[develop and evaluate] methods to find and count the number of injuries related to dockless electric scooters.”
This plan to study the health risks associated with what’s been dubbed “scootermania” comes as emergency rooms report a surge in broken bones, contusions, head injuries — even deaths. So common are these scootering injuries that many hospitals have had to create a new category for them. How exactly each injury happens is a mixed bag: if the front wheel hits something while you’re cruising along, you’re all but guaranteed to take a play out of the bird playbook and fly… right over the handlebars. In these ER-bound cases, it’s the upper extremities (hands, arms, shoulders, face) that take the brunt of the impact. But then there are the times when the devices themselves malfunction.
Lawrence Russo discovered what it feels like to not have brakes while enjoying what had been meant to be a quick errand run. He doesn’t remember whether he made it to the bottom of the hill that is San Diego’s Pringle Street, or whether he ditched the scooter in someone’s yard. He does remember waking up in the hospital, though.
Mirona Constantinescu had a similar experience, except when she tried to hit the brakes on the Bird Scooter she’d been riding, she felt the device speed up instead. In a split second decision she veered into a parked car; it was the only way she could think of to stop. She’s lucky she only ended up with a broken wrist.
Even as stories of missing screws, loose handlebars, defective brakes, and more pile up, it’s actually frustratingly difficult to file a personal injury suit against these electric scooter companies. Both Bird and Lime-S require you to sign an extensive liability waiver before you’re allowed to ride. In short, when you agree to ride a scooter you absolve the company of any and all risks. A group of California attorneys is trying to get a law passed that will make these types of contracts illegal, thus opening up electric scooter companies to personal injury lawsuits.
Howard Blau Law has been keeping a close eye on scootermania for a while now. At the start of the year we wrote about a law pertaining to electric scooters that did pass. “[We] can’t say we’re completely jazzed about this one, considering the importance of the cranium,” our rundown of AB 2989 said. “Going forward, adult scooter riders (18+) will not be required by law to wear helmets.” To say we were incredulous would be an understatement. Considering the numbers of people who’ve found themselves in the ER following an ill-fated ride on a scooter, requiring people to wear helmets would seem like common sense. Of course, common sense rarely seems to win out.
What’s worse is that it’s not just riders themselves who are facing these hazards. “I’ve seen pedestrians injured by scooters with broken hips, multiple bone fractures, broken ribs and joint injuries and soft tissue injuries like lacerations and deep abrasions,” Wally Ghurabi told the Washington Post earlier this year. As the Medical director of the Nethercutt Emergency Center at the UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, Ghurabi had a lot to offer, including troubling insight into the dangers to the elderly and disabled: electric scooters are routinely abandoned in the middle of sidewalks.
Though both Bird and Lime-S request that their scooters be left out of the way, in practice riders rarely do this. For someone in a wheelchair, an otherwise accessible area might become unnavigable. For the visually impaired or older folks whose reflexes aren’t what they used to be, these scooters present a nightmare of a tripping hazard. In same places, seniors are even opting to stay indoors rather than risk a broken hip or shattered kneecap, knowing full well how debilitating these injuries can be.
As trauma cases continue to stack up, it’s hard not to escape the obvious question: how do we prevent them from happening? How do we stem the tide of bruises, broken bones, and brain injuries that is threatening to overrun emergency rooms, just as these scooters have our sidewalks? It’s a question that’s not easy to address, but one well worth the time it will take to answer.
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Check Out These References for Further Reading:
“E-Scooter Ride-Share Industry Leaves Injuries and Angered Cities in its Path.” Consumer Reports. Retrieved 30 April 2019.
“As concerns mount about injuries from electric scooters, Bird pulls repairs in-house.” Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 30 April 2019.