Opinion: A recent report by Waka Kotahi on e-scooter safety asserts the devices may pose a danger to riders. Though it deemed the devices safe enough to renew a declaration that they are not motor vehicles (requiring no special licensing), the figures used by the transport agency make e-scooters appear more dangerous than they really are, using limited sample sizes and overly broad inferences. The data also obscures the many positive impacts of micro-mobility.
It has been four years since shared e-scooters became available for Australians and New Zealanders, but over a century since electric scooters were first used on public streets (1915) were initially very popular. Because of their use as criminal getaways, they soon developed a negative reputation.
Referred to as the “Solo Devil Wagon” by the popular press, they were an early example of exceptionally negative media reporting. They were overtaken by motorised mopeds and small mobility vehicles when fossil fuels became cheap and plentiful again after the Second World War, which then led to a shift to private cars and our auto-centric world, which in turn led to the excessive emissions and the climate change impacts that are amplifying year-on-year.
Today, an estimated 10,000 shared e-scooters are in commercial use across Australia and New Zealand. There are no official figures on the number of private e-scooters in both countries or globally, but crude estimates suggest the number is significant.
Media on e-scooters concentrates on three key subjects – the launch of new trials, licence extensions and safety. Recently, media coverage on safety refers to collisions with vehicles or pedestrians and associated injuries. As a result, media and government agencies still perceive that e-scooters have a higher risk per kilometre travelled compared with other transport modes.
There have been few media articles noting the potential positive impact that e-scooters and other micro-mobility and active mobility transportation can contribute, to mitigating global warming, given that private motor vehicles in Australia and New Zealand contribute close to 20 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in each country.
A significant limitation of the current e-scooter safety debate is the lack of a robust way to distinguish between shared and private e-scooters in reporting collisions. This distinction matters because the shared e-scooter market is highly regulated in both countries.
Shared e-scooter operators are required to provide helmets for riders, apply speed limiters to ensure safe speeds are not exceeded, geo-fence e-scooters (limiting where scooters can travel) and pedestrian detection technology.
Private e-scooters, in contrast, are not registered, have different quality specifications and can have larger motor sizes. Notably, private e-scooters are not digitally monitored and lack the advanced technologies deployed on shared e-scooters to monitor rider use. They have little quality control and have systems that can exceed legal limits.
Hospitals that record e-scooter injuries rarely distinguish between private or shared e-scooter riders. This lack of differentiation follows through to injury reporting and statistics equally because of how authorities collect crash statistics. As a result, recent public reporting on e-scooters has been based on ACC claims statistics – a poor substitute for detailed injury statistics.
The Waka Kotahi report draws on a 2022 ACC report for 2021 injuries which has some interesting comparisons between the injuries caused on different micro-mobility modes of transport Far more people (1,471) suffered soft tissue injuries from roller skating and skateboarding (5,344) than from e-scooting (1,119), for instance. Further, nine times as many bike riders incurred a head injury/concussion (681) than e-scooter riders (76). The comparison between roller skating and skateboarding is compelling when we remember how few people engage in those activities compared with riding e-scooters.
It is worth noting that ACC pointed out its data “was not a comprehensive list of injuries suffered by those using or hit by e-scooters. It relies on information written down by those making claims, which the injured person can record in several ways”.
For widespread sustainable and safe e-scooter adoption, there needs to be improved infrastructure, such as designated lanes for motorised micro-mobility to avoid mixing with slower pedestrians and fast-moving cars. Additionally, more consistency is needed in the recording of collision data specific to e-scooters, and an understanding and appreciation that though e-scooters are faster than walking, the riders themselves are vulnerable road users who deserve safe infrastructure.
Before arguments of risk and speed of e-scooters are thrown around, we need a much more reliable study of injury assessment that critically analyses risk, opportunities and threats to inform a balanced debate. Without a detailed analysis that puts e-scooters in the correct context, including their potential as a more sustainable alternative to cars, we risk perpetuating the much more significant ‘wicked’ problem of car dependency and climate change impacts.