By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Questions about accountability and liability linger in the background of a program that has seen high ridership and equally high community concern. The memorandum of understanding each of the seven permitted scooter companies signed with the city outlined a concrete division of liability from the outset. But how the city can modify the program to consistently hold companies accountable to the MOU is still unclear.
“There’s indemnity language in the MOUs so that the city is indemnified,” Yon Lambert, director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, said. “The legal liability is with the companies themselves.”
In light of recent safety studies that indicate scooter-related injuries are on the rise nationwide, some companies have implemented a sizable payout policy for liability coverage.
“The safety of our riders and community is a top priority,” a Lime spokesperson said in a statement. “Lime’s insurance policy offers at least $1 million in liability coverage for each incident, which meets or exceeds all requirements from cities, college campuses and busi- nesses. We recognize that every incident is unique and requires an individual approach, and we have a process in place to fully investigate all claims.”
In a program as new as this pilot, with technology as new as electric scooters, rider behavior is a constant challenge to city rules and regulations. Per the MOUs, the city is not paying out when those rules are broken and incidents occur, but residents are concerned Alexandrians could pay the real price.
Virginia is one of only a handful of states with a contributory negligence law. This law dictates that if a person’s negligence contributed to the accident, he or she would not be entitled to collect damages, according to online legal database Justia. This law could com- plicate things for scooter companies and riders, according to Mike Doyle, founder of Alexandria Families for Safe Streets.
“If the victim [is] deemed to be 1 percent at fault, the car or the driver that crashed into them and killed them or seriously injured them is exonerated in terms of the law,” Doyle said.
Liability is clearly defined in the MOU, but delegating financial responsibility and ensuring corporate accountability are two different things. The city handles the latter with communication when possible, and action when necessary, according to city officials.
For some concerned residents, the contrast in how local government and large companies operate creates an uneven power dynamic.
“Because the scooter companies operate on a philosophical belief system that there should be as little regulation as possible … that puts the city almost immediately at a great disadvantage,” Yvonne Callahan, vice president of the Old Town Civic Association and a former lawyer, said.
City officials said they are working on ways to make sure companies respond to complaints and follow the terms of the MOU.
Although residents can report improperly parked scooters and other breaches of the MOU to the city, they are encouraged to report issues directly to individual companies. Several residents have reported that companies often fail to respond to an issue in the given amount of time outlined in the MOU. In these cases, the city has the authority to take action.
“What the city is going to be able to begin doing is ensuring that they are being responsive by – where we see scooters that are improperly parked – call the company, give them their time, allow them to come out and move the scooter per the MOU,” Lambert said. “But if it has not been moved, then we’re going to look at impounding those scooters.”
T&ES has already started impounding a small number of scooters from companies that fail to respond per the terms of the MOU, T&ES Deputy Director Hillary Orr said. Once a scooter is impounded, the company in question must pay the city for the cost of transporting and storing it. The process behind impounding scooters is still a work in progress.
“This is one of the elements of the pilot that staff is working through in coordination with other jurisdictions,” Orr said. “We are using the pilot to determine the best and most effective mechanism for holding scooter companies accountable.”
One potential mechanism would allow T&ES to go a step further than impounding, Lambert said.
“The MOU has a termination clause, so if we decide it gets to a point where we need to terminate the MOU, there certainly are ways for us to do that,” Lambert said. “We’re not at that point yet.”
Backed by data that pours in monthly, the city’s efforts to hold companies accountable are still evolving, even as residents continue to call for accountability from the companies and the city. Being able to collect certain key data points will help the city improve its ability to ensure corporate accountability, Orr said.
“The companies vary,” Orr said. “… When we call the companies they seem pretty responsive so far, but what we need to see from them is when all the calls came in, when all the complaints were addressed.”
Adapting to a new form of technology that plays by its own rules and defies standard enforcement efforts remains a challenge for the city. In a program like this, disruptive technology can quickly become dangerous. For the city, keeping corporations accountable could ensure the success of the program – and the safety of the city’s residents.
In the next part of this ongoing series, the Times will explore how much power the city has to enforce and regulate scooters in the face of a new state bill that goes into effect next month.