By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Scooters first started rolling into Alexandria late last year, bringing with them a wave of anxiety over public safety.
The city is now five months into its nine-month long e-scooter pilot program, and the initial swell of public concern has somewhat died down as the city has attempted to adapt the program to Alexandria’s streets. But the pilot is still a work in progress and safety remains a point of concern.
Rider behavior, as well as state laws that require only those under the age of 14 to wear helmets, have left residents expecting the worst — and there is data that indicates concerns about scooter safety have merit.
“It’s a tragedy waiting to happen with the way these scooters are being handled by people that are oblivious to road safety rules, that blow through stop signs,” Mike Doyle, founder of Al- exandria Families for Safe Streets, said.
Residents have reported riders operating on sidewalks, which is prohibited, according to the city’s permits with the seven scooter companies. Various residents have also reported seeing users riding scooters through stop signs and stoplights and going down the center of the street, the latter of which creates traffic congestion.
Improperly parked scooters have created problems for some of Alexandria’s senior residents.
“I came out of my house – I live in the Torpedo Factory apartments on North Union Street – to find two scooters blocking the sidewalk,” Diana Banat, an 83-year-old resident, said in an email. “They were too heavy and entangled for me to pick up and as I passed them, I tripped and almost fell.”
The Inova Alexandria Hospital emergency department has not seen a flood of scooter-related injuries this year, according to Dr. Jeremy Graf, chair of the department.
However, residents have reported some close calls.
“Our neighbors in the 100 block of Prince [Street] shared that their teenage son had been hit by a scooter last week,” Greg Wilson, an Old Town resident who started a petition against the scooter program, said in an email. “Fortunately, he was fine, but scared by the experience.
“Another signatory to our letter shared that she nearly hit a young child who had darted into the street on a scooter,” he said in an email. “Fortunately, for her, she was able to stop the car in time, but it was frightening for all involved.”
Many of the concerns around scooters are a symptom of how new the technology is, Graf said. Pedestrians, drivers and even police are still uncertain how to interact with the devices on the street.
“When someone’s on a walking path and there’s a bicyclist that decides to use that path instead of the road, people can predict the speed, predict the maneuverability,” Graf said. “Scooters can be a little more difficult.”
The unpredictability presents a problem for the Alexandria Police Department. Officers can only do so much to enforce traffic laws with vehicles that quickly scoot in and out of traffic, Chief Michael Brown said.
“Our traffic safety section is aware of it. Our patrol units are aware of it,” Brown said. “We briefed them on what’s required by the operators of those scooters when the scooters were first deployed.”
To compound enforcement challenges, there is no category for scooters under Virginia law, which makes tracking and reporting scooter traffic stops or citations difficult. Brown said officers have stopped riders, but that it is difficult to determine how many, given these reporting issues.
“We’re also looking at trying to get a sense or a tempo of how often or what the frequency of use is,” Brown said. “That will allow us to do some extra deployment in [high traffic] areas.”
Police can enforce the laws, but rider education and awareness largely fall under the purview of the seven e-scooter companies currently permitted to operate in Alexandria. Making sure each company is regulating its riders has been a challenge for city officials.
“There are challenges with the quantity, there’s challenges with where they’re being left; and challenges with the companies’ ability to keep up with regulating the impact of their users’ actions and behaviors,” Mayor Justin Wilson said.
While corporate responsiveness has been an ongoing issue throughout the pilot program, some companies have taken steps of their own to ensure the safety of their riders.
One company, Bird, has given away more than 65,000 helmets to its us- ers worldwide and has put in place measures it claims will increase the safety of riders.
“We strive to improve and enhance the well-being of our riders and communities through concrete action, including: requiring riders to confirm they are 18 or older, providing an in-app tutorial on how to ride a Bird and how to park it and posting clear safety instructions on each Bird,” a Bird spokesperson said in a statement.
“The scooter doesn’t drive itself,” Maggie Gendron, director of strategic development and government affairs for Lime in the D.C. area, said. “It is driven by the rider and there are certainly behavioral tactics that we expect from our riders.”
Lime orchestrates in-person educational events for the public throughout the region based around rules of the road and proper use of its devices, Gendron said.
Other scooter companies, including Skip and Jump, have also started giving away or selling helmets to their users. Jump is partnering with VeloCity Bike Cooperative in Del Ray to give out free helmets to its riders.
Whether riders take advantage of these opportunities is another matter, and it remains unclear whether e-scooter companies will be able to enforce or ensure the safety of their riders.
Two recent studies from the Centers for Disease Control and the University of California, Los Angeles outlined that the concerns around scooter safety are well-founded.
The UCLA study found hospitals in the Los Angeles area, where scooters have a longer track record than in Alexandria, had seen an uptick in scooter-related injuries. The study analyzed 249 cases where people had been sent to the hospital for scooter-related injuries in the span of a year.
Ninety-two percent of those people were riders, only 4 percent of whom were wearing helmets. Forty percent of the 249 injuries sustained were head injuries.
“With every injury — whether we see it on a bike or a motorcycle or a scooter — the injuries are significantly more severe if the driver is not wearing a helmet,” Graf said.
The CDC study, based on data collected in Austin, Texas across 87 days in fall 2018, found similar data points. Almost 200 people were involved in confirmed scooter-related incidents. Only one was wearing a helmet.
Fifty-five percent of those injuries were sustained in the street while 33 percent occurred on the sidewalk. The remaining 12 percent happened in various other locations, including parking lots, parking garages and pedestrian and bike paths.
Notably, 10 percent of the incidents involved a motor vehicle. The rest involved riders hitting immobile objects or surfaces, like a pothole or curbside, and driver-induced incidents, such as braking hard or tipping over.
The CDC study found that, based on the number of rides taken in the time span of the study, there were 20 rider injuries per 100,000 e-scooter trips. The CDC also notes that there have been fewer than a dozen e-scooter-related fatalities nationwide.
While Alexandria Inova Hospital has yet to see a significant increase in the number or intensity of scooter-related injuries, Graf said the hospital is still monitoring them. The primary concern for the hospital is the potential for serious head injuries, Graf said.
There’s the potential for concussions, which can result in loss of consciousness, headaches, memory loss or vomiting. But there are even more severe issues, Graf said, especially with a riding population that is largely not wearing helmets.
“[There] are things like skull fractures, whether just isolated or something called depressed skull fractures where there’s displacement of the bone,” Graf said “And then even more severe than that would be bleeding, either bleeding in the brain tissue itself or in the areas between the skull and the brain.”
Much like with bicyclists, a hard brake can send riders flying over the handlebars and facing serious, non-head related injuries, Graf said.
“If you fly over the handlebars, depending on your speed, we worry about the handlebars hitting you on your abdomen underneath your ribs,” Graf said. “… The one thing we worry about is that if you go over the handlebars, underneath the ribs we worry about a splenic injury or a liver injury. Those end up being tears or bleeds that can be really significant or life threatening.”
For the moment, Graf’s concerns remain based on prior experiences with bicyclists and motorcyclists. But studies like those run by the CDC and UCLA reveal the nationwide context in which those concerns exist.
It’s unclear how much greater use of helmets, along with rider education and police and corporate enforcement, can increase the safety of e-scooters. Some Alexandrians want stricter regulations, while others want to cancel the pilot program all together. But the one thing they all want is safety on Alexandria’s streets – sooner rather than later.
“What will happen is that somebody is killed, maybe more than one, and then people are going to be up in arms and then [the city will] start to react,” Doyle said. “Don’t wait for the death of one or more people on these scooters or the injuries of the pedestrians and scooters.”