Some Riders Urge Action on Alleged Safety Flaws
On a recent evening, Stacey Lee followed her usual routine, heading to the beach near her Playa del Rey apartment for an after-dinner walk. Lee used to make the five-minute drive to the beach in her car, but when the motorized scooter craze reached her neighborhood, she decided to give it a try. The ease and convenience of a scooter for the short trip hooked her immediately. On this evening like most others, after coming home from her job as an office engineer in a construction company, she grabbed a shared e-scooter from the stand near her front door, hopped on, and pointed it beachward.
This time, though, things went terribly wrong. As Lee coasted downhill toward a busy intersection, she tried to engage the break but got no response. Instead the scooter continued to accelerate until she lost control, forcing her to leap off before colliding with traffic. Still in motion from the speed of the scooter, she tumbled to the asphalt, suffering gashes on her knees, arms and hands. The accident gave her a shock.
“I was desperate when the brake failed,” Lee said, speaking in her native Mandarin Chinese. “The only thing I could do was jump. It was the first time I realized that the scooter is not safe.”
Since September of 2017, startups including Bird, Lime and Spin have introduced thousands of shared e-scooters to the streets in and around Los Angeles. Cities have limited the total that each operator can have on the streets. In Santa Monica, each operator is capped at 2,000. In L.A. the maximum number of e-bikes and e-scooters per vendor is 2,500. But even with these caps, critics say other problems with the scooters have not been addressed. Certain stretches of Santa Monica or L.A. can seem overwhelmed by scooters, which riders can simply deposit anywhere, and which often wind up scattered randomly on the sidewalks. And concerns are mounting that scooters present a range of unaddressed safety hazards, both in their regulation and design. Since Oct. 18, 2017, a total of 60 scooter related incidents in Santa Monica have required an Emergency Medical Services response, according to the Santa Monica Fire Department. Incidents included scooter rider and vehicle collisions, as well as pedestrians tripping and falling over abandoned scooters strewn on sidewalks.
“My opinion, get rid of them,” said Julian Zermeno, Santa Monica’s EMS paramedic coordinator, in an email. “We have been on many scooter medical calls due to the riders falling down, crashing into people and getting hit by other vehicles.”
The internet-connected scooters are managed through apps on smartphones. Download an app for a scooter company, use the map to locate the nearest scooter, enter the credit card information, upload driver’s license photo, scan a barcode to open a scooter and then you can ride it. Park the scooter and end the trip on the app.
The scooter startups market their products as a cheap, easy and environmentally friendly way for riders to reach last-mile destinations in cities with many traffic jams and poor public transportation. It costs a flat fee of $1 to ride the scooter plus 15 cents per minute used. The scooter craze has attracted billions of dollars of investment from venture capitalists. According to Bloomberg, Birdâ€™s evaluation has reached $2 billion in June. And the new fundraising round of Lime in June has valued Lime at a $1.1 billion.
Now, a class-action lawsuit filed in Superior Court of California has accused Lime, Bird, Xiaomi as well as other scooter firms of “strict products liability”, “gross negligence” and “aiding and abetting assault.” The plaintiffs of the lawsuit are clients of McGee, Lerer & Associates, a personal injury attorney firm in Los Angeles County. Catherine Lerer, an attorney in the firm, said the plaintiffs include a scooter rider, a motorist with a disability who was unable to access a parking space because it was blocked by scooters, and seven pedestrians injured by electric scooters.
Lerer said “the phone started ringing” with scooter injury complaints in April. Since then, she says she’s been contacted by about 200 people, both riders and pedestrians.
Lerer has about 30 clients who “suffered very serious injury due to electric scooters,” she said. In some instances, the scooter’s throttle got stuck in the fully depressed mode when riders pushed the brake paddle down with their fingers, she said.
“So it’s at full speed and the rider can’t unstick it,” she said. “It’s going 15 miles an hour and they can’t unstick it. And when they try and apply the brake, nothing happens to slow it down so they have to jump off.”
That’s what happened to Stacey Lee. As she recalled, the brake “didn’t have any response” when she pressed the button. Also, she said the speed and brake functions look and operate in the same way, which can be confusing.
“Sometimes, riders may mix up the two functions of handlebars and press speed button when they want a brake,” Lee said. “It’s so dangerous.” In her case, Lee said, “I’m sure I didn’t mistake them. The brake didn’t work without any warning when I pressed the brake button.”
Brake malfunction is not the only safety problem riders are encountering. Lerer said the electric scooter calls they have received include handlebar stem collapses, a sudden cutoff of scooter power and flat tires.
The scooter companies say they are administering proper maintenance.
According to the Bird consumer team spokeswoman Rachel Banston, mechanics retrieve all the scooters at dusk and inspect each scooter for “necessary maintenance and repairs” at night. Banston described the process in an email in response to an interview request but declined to speak by phone. The Lime Communications Team didn’t respond to an interview.
The scooter manufacturer Xiaomi, a mobile internet company based in China, writes in its user manual that the scooter should be inspected before every ride. However, the scooter companies “are not doing that”, Lerer said.
The fact is that mechanics cannot guarantee each scooter can be inspected before every ride as the user manual states. Also, a Santa Monica Bird scooter mechanic complained that “a visual inspection and a test drive were the only ways to determine the cause of a malfunction”, according to a report in June 2018. In other words, if a scooter goes broken after mechanics have tested it, it would cause a potential threat to riders’ safety. The only way for scooter company to know if something’s wrong with the scooter depends on a rider reporting the malfunction to companies. And the Bird app doesn’t have a “report an issue” button until Nov. 8, 2019.
Based on her riding experience, Stacey Lee said the absence of turn signals on scooters is also dangerous.
“Particularly when turning left,” Lee said. “I need to wave to cars behind me and make them know I want to turn left so that they can give me seconds before they speed up.” Scooters are not visible for some drivers, Lee said, adding that she hopes scooters can be equipped with visible and fluorescent signal lights.
In California, it’s illegal to ride scooters on the sidewalks, according to California Vehicle Code, but many scooter riders disregard the law and clog the sidewalks, creating hazards for pedestrians. As scooters are dumped in public places, people who don’t like them have easy access to abuse them. An Instagram account “birdgraveyard” says it is “a place for people to show their frustration” with the scooters, and features images of scooters that have been vandalized and discarded in the ocean and in dumpsters and shopping carts.
Meanwhile, the California Vehicle Code states that every scooter rider shall wear a helmet when riding a scooter. However, scooter companies successfully lobbied to have that requirement removed, and, under a bill signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown taking effect in January, only riders under the age of 18 must wear a helmet.
“Scooter companies don’t want a rider to think, ‘wait a minute, I can’t rent that because I have to have a helmet. I may get a ticket’”, Lerer said of the new bill.
Until now, scooter companies have simply painted their logos on the scooters purchased from manufacturers and put them on the streets. These scooters, intended for personal consumers, cannot handle a heavy fleet use by public riders.
“Scooter companies now have come out with, what they refer as, more ruggedized scooters, which they claim are more stable,” Lerer said. “My question is, why aren’t you replacing all of them with this new model?”