By Jenni Bergal
Thousands of new riders have embraced the electric pay-per-minute scooters that have proliferated on America’s streets.
Other people have set them on fire, tossed them off buildings and decorated them with dog droppings.
Depending on your point of view, the scooters are an environmentally friendly convenience or a mechanical menace. One thing is certain: Until now, most states have done almost nothing to regulate e-scooters, in large part because the scooter explosion happened after most legislatures adjourned for 2018.
That may be about to change.
Next year, at least a dozen states are likely to take up e-scooter measures, according to Douglas Shinkle, who follows transportation issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Only about 10 states specifically regulate them now, he said.
“It’s on lawmakers’ radar,” Shinkle said. “There’s controversy and consternation in some communities about where they should operate and whether they should be prohibited from sidewalks.”
The rules are needed in part to address safety issues. While no government agency keeps national statistics on injuries related to motorized scooters, accidents have spiked. In September, a man riding a rented e-scooter was killed in the District of Columbia in a collision with an SUV.
Last month, nine people filed a class-action lawsuit in Los Angeles County against the nation’s two largest e-scooter rental companies, Lime and Bird, and their manufacturers, accusing them of “gross negligence.”
Three of the plaintiffs claim they were injured by tripping over scooters left discarded on the sidewalk. Others, including a 7-year-old boy who suffered severe damage to eight of his front teeth and had to get his lip stitched back together, say scooters rammed into them from behind as they walked.
The suit alleges that the companies don’t provide adequate safety instructions for riders and that some scooters’ electronic and mechanical parts are defective.
In a suit against Bird, Lime and two cities, a California woman who is a paraplegic says the scooters left on sidewalks and curb ramps are creating barriers and hazardous conditions for people with disabilities.
The companies say their e-scooters are safe and stress that rider safety is a top priority. They typically instruct riders about the rules of the road and other protocols. Lime, for example, requires first-time riders who download the app to flip through a safety tutorial. It also has begun asking riders to sign a pledge to ride responsibly, wear a helmet, abide by traffic laws and ride within designated areas only.
Easy to Use
To use the two-wheeled kick scooters — which consist of handlebars, a floorboard and an electric motor — riders simply download an app on their smartphone, open a map that shows the nearest e-scooter, and pay to unlock it.
Because many states have no regulations specific to e-scooters, they treat them as motor vehicles or mopeds. That means they’re subject to the same laws that govern those vehicles, even though they typically don’t go more than 15 mph.
In New York, for example, state law doesn’t address e-scooters, so they technically fall under the category of motor vehicles. But they’re not considered motor vehicles either because they can’t be registered by the Department of Motor Vehicles. And New York City explicitly prohibits them.
This year, New York state legislators introduced bills in the Senate and Assembly late in the session that would have created definitions and standards for e-scooters, but neither measure made it out of committee.
In some states, such as Colorado, e-scooters are considered toy vehicles. That means people can ride them on the sidewalk alongside pedestrians but not on the street or in bike lanes, where cities generally prefer them to be.
Emily Warren, senior policy director at Lime, said many cities located in states without appropriate vehicle classifications want to move forward with an electric scooter program, but can’t until legislators act.
“I think a lot of legislatures around the country are going to create new categories for scooters,” she said, “2019 is going to be a big year for this, and we will be pushing for that at the state level.”
Existing Rules Vary
The San Francisco-based Lime started as a dockless bike-share program in 2017 and expanded to include e-scooters in February. The company now has scooters in more than 40 U.S. cities.
Another large e-scooter company, Bird, headquartered in Santa Monica, also began in 2017 and now lists more than 70 U.S. cities on its website.
The states that do have regulations specifically allowing e-scooters have taken different approaches.
In Virginia, e-scooters can operate on sidewalks unless prohibited by local ordinances. They also can be used on roads with speed limits of 25 mph or less.
In Minnesota, electric scooters are not allowed on sidewalks but can operate on roads, and riders must follow the same traffic laws as bicyclists.
And in Texas, e-scooters are allowed on sidewalks and on streets with speed limits of 35 mph or less, but state officials are deferring to local jurisdictions to govern how they operate.
In California, where users must ride on streets unless there is a bicycle lane, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law in September that updates e-scooter rules. The measure boosted the maximum speed limit of roads that riders are permitted on from 25 to 35 mph and, similar to bicycle regulations, no longer requires adults 18 and over to wear helmets. Local governments can impose stricter standards.
And while e-scooters are prohibited on interstate highways, which typically have speed limits ranging from 55 to 85 mph, that doesn’t mean that everyone complies.
Last month, the Indiana Department of Transportation sent out a tweet reminding the public that electric scooters are not allowed on highways and urging people to notify law enforcement immediately if they see one.
The department was reacting to a tweet by an Indianapolis TV reporter who said she had spotted three people riding e-scooters southbound on northbound Interstate 65 at 3:30 a.m.
“HOLY SMOKES. In disbelief that I am even tweeting this,” wrote RTV6 reporter Meredith Barack, who added: “The only thing between my car and them was a semi.”