Managing e-scooter risks around the Commonwealth

By Peter Stephenson, VMLIP Local Government Specialist

Shortly after writing my initial Fall 2018 Newsletter article, Under the cover of darkness an emerging risk appears, little did I know how prophetic it would be to my family.

My nephew was riding an electric scooter at a large midwest college campus when he was struck by an automobile at an intersection.  Thankfully, he did not sustain serious injuries, but he did a face plant on the hood of the distracted driver’s car – and that ended the ‘fun’ scooter ride.

I’m not sure which took longer to heal, his bruises or adventurous ego.

Unsurprisingly, this topic was addressed in the state legislature during the past session. A bill was passed (HB 2752) by the 2019 Virginia General Assembly, authorizing localities to regulate the operation of private companies that rent electric scooters and motorized skateboards.

HB 2752 as summarized on the Virginia Legislative Information System, “Makes consistent the operational requirements for motorized skateboards or scooters and similar devices, including (a) allowing motorized skateboards and scooters to be driven on sidewalks, (b) requiring motorized skateboards and scooters driven on a roadway to be driven as close to the right curb as is safely practicable, (c) prohibiting the operation of motorized skateboards or scooters on any Interstate Highway System component, and (d) requiring operators of motorized skateboards and scooters to give hand signals and have lights on such devices.  The bill prohibits operating a motorized skateboard or scooter at a speed faster than 20 miles per hour.”

Local governing bodies must take action by January 1, 2020.  After this date, the companies providing motorized skateboards or scooters for hire may operate freely without local regulation unless and until an official ordinance is adopted or some other action is taken such as the initiation of a formal pilot program.

Speaking of pilot programs, the City of Norfolk was the headlining focus of my original article last fall, and since written, Bird has paid the city $20,000 to retrieve the more than 500 scooters that were impounded.  However, they aren’t back out on the streets just yet.

Norfolk is currently reviewing four proposals and expects to launch a pilot program this summer.

Pilot programs for dock-less shared mobility devices remain underway, expanding in a seemingly coordinated effort in the City of Alexandria, Arlington County and the District of Columbia.

In Alexandria, riders must wear helmets and can use e-scooters on streets, bike lanes and certain trails but not on sidewalks.  Arlington’s pilot program wraps up in July, after which a decision will be made under what rules and regulations to allow the for hire companies to operate permanently.

Public input is very important.

Many impacted communities across the Commonwealth are having the same discussions, mostly urbanized areas and those with colleges and universities. Comprehensive ordinances are being readied for adoption such as in Richmond.

Please use these links to see the recent approved application materials provided by the City of Richmond.

The new state legislation will assuredly speed up the locality process of examining:

  • Permitting processes, fees and insurance requirements;
  • Allowing use on sidewalks and public parks;
  • Restricting or geo-fencing use in certain areas;
  • Putting a cap on the number of devices;
  • Establishing hours of operation;
  • Setting a maximum speed allowed;
  • Defining user age restrictions and helmet requirements;
  • Designating parking locations for dock-less devices;
  • Sharing of information collected by the device rental companies;
  • Relegating departmental oversight and enforcement; and
  • Communicating with the public about all of the above.

Safety concerns should be closely monitored by localities as part of this review process.

The pilot programs revealed issues such as broken brakes, sticky accelerators, sudden motor failure (not related to battery life), device vandalism and generally unsafe riding conditions.

Cyber security is also a potential concern if hackers are able to take control of an e-scooter in use. Further, ongoing maintenance of these rapidly multiplying devices will be a challenge. Many of the deployment systems rely on independent contractors, with limited qualifications required for those individuals who are needed, to charge or swap batteries and repair these shared mobility devices.

Reporting of device problems and retrieval to remove them from public use in a timely manner will not be easy. One new solution is a solar powered dock that can park and charge multiple devices of virtually all scooter models, and can gather data about use and condition.

Local governments need to know what they are getting into in terms of safety and liability.

Unfortunately, not enough data exists at this time. That is why many localities are requiring the companies to share data if they are going to use the public right of way. To address some already evident safety concerns, the companies are utilizing next generation models with stronger safety features, such as bigger wheels and extra rear brakes.

App safety tutorials are now prevalent for companies such as Bird and Lime.  They promote safe riding and encourage wearing helmets and proper parking. Hopefully, riders will follow these helpful instructions.

This is a new form of micro-mobility and local governments with the proprietary function of owning, operating and maintaining streets and sidewalks must assess and examine their roads and sidewalks for this new form of transportation.

As a proprietary function, local governments may be held liable for injury. It will not be a simple decision to allow the use of such devices on public sidewalks where so many potential conflicts exist.  There are liability concerns with either decision.

For e-scooters, these relatively small wheeled devices will have to navigate through potholes or uneven sidewalks, while avoiding pedestrians, other vehicles and a multitude of stationary objects.  Local governments should weigh their decision to protect their assets while promoting initiatives to achieve their strategic objectives.

‘Vision Zero’ is a strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all citizens.  Several Virginia cities such as Norfolk, Richmond and Alexandria have embraced this goal of enhancing pedestrian safety.  Time will tell whether these shared mobility devices will be part of the solution or whether they will add to the problem of increasing pedestrian encounters and accidents.

Personal injury lawyers are taking note of this emerging risk.  Will the acknowledged user agreement prevail in court when accidents occur?

Most of these agreements are written to favor arbitration to keep issues out of the court rooms.  Perhaps they will be considered auto insurance-eligible motor vehicles in terms of liability coverage, or conveyed under some homeowner’s policies like my errant tee shot years ago that broke a window of a home situated along a golf course.

To continue on the lighter side, one of my co-workers shared an online post (so you know it must be true) with me recently.  It stated that a bank robbery suspect was arrested after using a rental scooter in making his getaway.  Riders use an App that contains their phone number, e-mail address and credit card information – a slight oversight by the bank robber.

Some cities around the country have taken the extreme measure of banning this new method of transportation in name of public health and safety.

Virginia’s local governments now have the conferred power to authorize the use of e-scooters.

Perhaps their use will bring in additional revenues.  Local shops and restaurants may benefit from the increased traffic and new faces. They might also provide needed first or last mile transportation to underserved neighborhoods while reducing parking woes.

Every decision carries risk. The key is to find balance between the risk and reward. Let’s work together to make the best possible locality specific regulations and arrangements for a safe co-existence in our communities.