British YouTube star Emily Hartridge is the latest person to die in an e-scooter accident, but she's far from the first. Hard data on electric scooter safety are difficult to find, but at least four e-scooter riders had died in accidents in the United States before Hartridge, known for the series "10 Reasons Why" was killed in a collision with a truck in London earlier this week. And from the little data that can be gleaned from hospitals in cities around the U.S., riding a scooter in a city is dramatically more dangerous than riding a bicycle, or in a bus or car.
Just how dangerous are e-scooters? Consumer Reports did its best to find out by polling hospitals in some cities where scooter ride shares are readily available. It was a "spot tally," not an exhaustive investigation. And many hospitals were not able to tell CR how many scooter crash victims they'd treated because they don't keep track of those numbers. Nonetheless, even that limited research turned up more than 1,500 scooter-related injuries during 2019. Some of those injured were not the riders themselves, but unfortunate pedestrians who encountered them.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the City of Austin collaborated on a study of electric scooter accidents that went into greater depth. They found more than 190 injuries in a three-month period in Austin, a number they say is probably low because it only includes hospital visits, not visits to urgent care facilities or doctors' offices. They also found that an astonishing one in three injuries occurred the first time someone rode a scooter, and 63 percent happened within the first nine rides. Almost half the injuries were head injuries, in part because pretty much no one was wearing a helmet at the time of the crash.
In Portland, Oregon, the Bureau of Transportation conducted a study and issued a statement saying that riding e-scooters carried risks "similar to other parts of the transportation system." It also reported that public sentiment is heavily in favor of e-scooters, which may be the real point here--because Portland's own data seems to contradict that finding. The Multnomah County Health Department report, an appendix to Portland's e-bike report, says that there were about twice as many hospital or urgent care visits due to bicycle accidents as to scooter accidents during the city's pilot e-scooter program, but that the data suggests there might have been three to four times as many bicycle trips during that period. The data also says that the average scooter trip was a little bit less than a mile, whereas bicycle travel is often farther than that, so the difference in injury rate per mile traveled is probably even greater.
While we may not have very clear data comparing e-scooter and bicycle injury rates, we do have some useful data when it comes to fatalities on ride share e-scooters versus ride share bicycles. The death rate on e-scooters is about one per 10.75 million trips, whereas on bike shares, it's about one per 61.5 million trips. In other words, while the odds of a fatality are reassuringly low in both cases, you're six times more likely to die every time you step onto a ride share scooter than if you had chosen a ride share bicycle instead.
E-Scooter risk factors
Why are scooters so dangerous? There are lots of reasons. To begin with, there's the obvious fact that you have to balance on top of a scooter rather than sitting on a bicycle, along with the fact that the learning curve for riding a bike is a bit steeper which suggests that people who use one have practiced a bit more and have more skill than scooter riders do. There's also the fact that scooters have much smaller wheels, which makes them much more vulnerable to bumps or holes in the road or sidewalk. Also, in many cities there's really no good place to ride a scooter. In most locations, there are rules against riding them on sidewalks, although those rules are widely ignored. Unfortunately, with a speed of up to 15 miles per hour, they're too fast to safely share a sidewalk with pedestrians, but most scooter riders don't feel safe (with good reason) if they ride in the road, surrounded by cars, buses, and trucks. As safety advocates point out, a protected bike lane or bike/scooter lane is needed.
Another issue is the nature of e-scooters themselves--in many cases, riding one is a matter of impulse. You're walking along the street, you see a dockless scooter sitting invitingly on the sidewalk, it says that says you can unlock it for only $1, and pretty soon before thinking too much about it, you've downloaded the app and hopped on. Are you wearing a helmet? Almost certainly not--you didn't take one with you when you left home this morning because you weren't planning on a scooter ride. That spontaneity makes scooters more fun, but can also make them more dangerous, with people getting on them wearing inappropriate clothes and shoes, and without helmets.
The two dominant e-scooter ride share companies, Lime and Bird, are both unicorns, expected to go public in the near future, and Uber, another e-scooter ride share player already had its IPO, of course. So there were will be more e-scooters on more city streets, more accidents, and likely more fatalities. Emily Hartridge wasn't the first e-scooter rider to die and she likely won't be the last.
If you want to ride an e-scooter more safely, lobby your city for a dedicated bike lane. Plan ahead when you step out your front door and wear the kinds of shoes and clothes that make sense if you're going to ride a scooter. And for pity's sake, please bring a helmet.