UK E-Scooter Fatality Raises Question of Safe Use in Cities

July 15, 2019

By Rebecca Heilweil

The passing of 35-year-old British YouTube personality Emily Hartridge after she collided with a truck while riding her personal e-scooter in London has raised concerns over the safety of the vehicles in cities designed long before their invention.

The Guardian reported that Hartridge's death marked the first fatality involving an e-scooter in the United Kingdom. In a second accident less than 24 hours later, one 14-year-old boy hit a bus stop while riding an e-scooter in a town just outside of London. The boy is reported to have sustained a head injury and is in critical condition.

Since their introduction to city streets, e-scooters have faced questions regarding both their safety and where they should be allowed to operate. In June, Consumer Reports found that at least eight deaths in the U.S. could be linked to e-scooters.

"There's a lot of concerns related to the number of crashes that have happened. In this case, the rider was struck by a truck. My understanding is that she was on her own scooter," Arizona State University professor David King told Cheddar. "These scooters operate at a speed and in locations where drivers aren't typically conditioned to see them. And that can create a lot of problems."

Even though they're sold throughout the country, e-scooters cannot be legally be used in public spaces in the UK, due to a law dating back to 1835. In London, the e-scooter startup Bird only operates in Olympic Park, which is technically private land (the scooters power down if they're taken outside the permitted area).

Bird competitor Lime appears to only offer e-bikes — and not e-scooters — in the country.

In the U.S., working with the Center for Disease Control, the Austin Public Health and Transportation departments found that there are 20 injuries for every 100,000 shared electric scooter rides, after studying nearly one million rides.

One challenge is that companies have struggled to make certain that riders, especially those using shared services, wear safety gear. In one study of e-scooter use in Southern California, only 4.4 percent of 249 riders sent to the emergency room were wearing a helmet at the time of their injuries.

However, King said it's not about changing e-scooter rider behavior, but changing how cities are organized. Urban planners, he says, should think about the ways riders use these vehicles, and design from there.

"There's a bit of victim-blaming every time there's one of these crashes," he said.

"We have to really think about what is it that we really want from our streets. Our streets are a public asset, and we have to manage them as such," said King. "How do we fit scooters, how do we fit seated-scooters, how do we fit recreational bicycles, commuting bicycles, walking, people with carriages, all types of different users, in the street?"

"We shouldn't be blaming people for not wearing helmets. We should actually think about designing our streets so that helmets are something that you don't necessarily need. If you look at Dutch cities, those are not filled with people wearing helmets as they're driving around on bicycles," he said, adding, "We can think about creating street spaces that are safe enough for everyone to use them as they want."

He cautions that automation could add to these challenges, relegating other forms of travel to separate lanes.