Kentucky state Rep. Ken Upchurch says he doubts he will ever see an electric scooter in his rural district on the state’s southern border, but he was happy to help when a lobbyist for Bird Rides Inc. asked him to introduce legislation to support its “micromobility” scooter rental business.
Upchurch, R-Monticello, said he has seen Bird and Lime scooters in Lexington and other cities.
“It looks like an industry that is gaining some traction nationally,” he said. “I think especially in the metropolitan areas it’s going to be good for the consumer.”
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin signed Upchurch’s House Bill 258 into law in March, ensuring that electric scooters will be treated the same as bicycles under Kentucky law, with no requirement to register them with the state or purchase insurance. The law allows scooters to be parked on sidewalks as long as they don’t impede pedestrian traffic and excludes scooters from helmet requirements.
Bird Rides Inc. and Lime have been pushing for legislation in state houses across the country to ensure that their rental electric scooters are treated as bicycles under motor vehicle laws. Like Kentucky, state legislatures in New Jersey, Utah and Virginia have already passed bills this year and legislation is being considered in at least 15 other statehouses stretching from Hawaii to Massachusetts, according to online records.
New Kind of Injury Claim
While state lawmakers have been receptive, there is also a growing body of evidence that electric scooters are a new source of injury claims. In February, Consumer Reports reported that it found 1,500 people have been injured in U.S. electric scooter accidents since Bird and Lime released their scooters on city streets in late 2017. Consumer Reports said it based its findings on a spot tally from major hospitals and other public agencies, such as police departments.
The Consumer Report’s findings were similar to the results of a study by University of California, Los Angeles. UCLA researchers examined data from 249 people who had been treated at emergency rooms at the UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica and the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center last September and August. They found that one-third of the injured people arrived at the hospital in an ambulance, indicating the severity of their injuries, and 40 percent suffered head injuries.
The UCLA research found that the scooter rider was injured in 92 percent of the scooter accidents. But in 8 percent of cases, other people were injured, including pedestrians. Only 4 percent of riders were wearing a protective helmet. Researchers also spent seven hours observing scooter riders at busy Los Angeles intersections and found that 94 percent of 193 people spotted riding scooters were not wearing helmets.
Dr. Tarak Trivedi, the study’s lead author, said the study does not show that electric scooters are inherently dangerous. The research does not provide any comparison of the injury rate per miles driven on scooters compared to bicycles, for example.
But Trivedi said he hopes the study raises awareness that scooters can cause serious injuries. He said the scooters are still a novelty to many. The people who ride them may not understand the risks. Trivedi said doesn’t own a car and he rides electric scooters, more so lately because his bicycle was stolen. He always wears a helmet. “People getting on these things aren’t really aware of the dangers,” he said.
Personal injury attorneys are very aware of the opportunity that scooters present to sue for damages when people are injured. Many law firms in Southern California are marketing themselves as “scooter injury attorneys.”
Among them is Santa Monica lawyer Catherine Lerer. She has filed a class-action lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court against Bird and Lime and the scooter manufacturers, arguing that the companies should be required to include “adequate warnings and/or instructions” in their apps and on vehicles.
Lerer said she represents more than 100 plaintiffs who have been injured by scooters, only some of whom are participating in the class-action. She said the scooter handlebars fall off, the wheels get caught on pavement imperfections and sometimes brakes freeze.
“They are very dangerous,” Lerer said. “They are motorized vehicles that are defectively designed.”
Scooters also can endanger passersby. Lerer said most often, pedestrians who are struck by electric scooters never find out who was driving. But in some accidents, blame can be assigned to automobile insurers and property insurers. One of her most recent clients is an 87-year-old woman who tripped over a scooter that was on the sidewalk outside Emeritus College in Santa Monica. Lerer said she’s filed a claim with Santa Monica Community College, which runs the school. The college risk manager did not return a call requesting comment.
Lime spokeswoman Taylor Bennett said her company has led several safety initiatives.
Lime recently launched Gen 3 scooter, which has upgraded wheels, better suspension, additional braking and improved balance, she said.
Bird and Lime’s political push began in California, where both companies are headquartered. Gov. Jerry Brown last September signed into law Assembly Bill 2989. The measure bars electric scooters from sidewalks, but allows them on any road with a speed limit of 35 mph or less, and on any road with designated bicycle lanes. The bill requires helmets only for riders younger than 18.
This year, lawmakers in other states have welcomed the companies’ message that electric scooters offer an emission-free solution to the “first-mile, last mile” transportation problem presented by public transit.
In Virginia, the legislature has sent a bill to the governor that contains many of the policies the scooter companies are pushing for, including a provision that prohibits cities from passing ordinances that would prohibit parking scooters on sidewalks. Gov. Ralph Northam had until March 26 to sign or veto the measure.
In New Jersey, a bill awaiting action by Gov. Phil Murphy would bar electric scooters from sidewalks, but allow them on bike paths. The bill also requires rental companies to mark their scooters with identification tags.
But some states are going their own way. The Hawaii House of Representatives has passed a bill that would specifically authorize the department of Transportation to regulate electric scooters and require operators to be at least 18. Lawmakers removed a provision that would have treated electric scooters the same as bicycles after bicycling advocates objected.
And in Utah, the League of Cities and Towns pushed back against a provision that would have required municipalities to allow electric scooters to be parked on sidewalks.
The final version of Senate Bill 139, which has received approval by the state Senate, requires scooter rental companies to indemnity local governments for any claims against them for actions by their customers. The bill also allows local governments to designate specific areas where the scooters can be parked, something that the League of Cities and Towns insisted on, said Director of Government Relations Rachel Otto.
Otto said Bird and Lime’s lobbyists didn’t strenuously object to the language that requires indemnification, but they didn’t like the provision that allows local governments to regulate scooter parking.
“Our guys are just very protective about having flexibility on how these things are regulated,” Otto said. “We stick by that core principle that a there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”
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