(…. And Why Are They So Confusing?)
Electric scooters are banned in London until a new law goes into effect. Until recently, you could ride your own electric scooter in New York City, but you couldn’t rent one. Currently, the city of Pittsburg will let you rent an e-scooter, but they are banned everywhere else in Pennsylvania…..Why would these small, two-wheeled electric vehicles cause so much legal confusion in cities around the U.S. and the world?
To understand the minor panic and legal tangles, we need to make sense of different kinds of infrastructure and transportation cultures. Manhattan is not Pittsburgh, and it’s a far cry from localities considering scooter legislation where there are very few pedestrians. But geographical differences only tell part of the story. Most U.S. scooter laws, such as those in California-–the birthplace of electric scooters-–started at the level of crowded major cities, then expanded statewide.
Electric scooter riding, and the needs of scooter riders, changes dramatically outside of urban centers, where the focus is on protecting pedestrians. Higher speeds simply make more sense on roads with higher speed traffic and very few people commuting by foot. In dense city centers, however, foot traffic and public transit tend to dominate traffic patterns in general, making it essential to regulate scooter speeds for the safety of everyone else.
It’s also critical to make distinctions between rented, shared, or “dockless,” electric scooters and privately-owned personal electric vehicles (PEVs). Scooter laws initially developed to regulate the shared electric scooters first introduced in Santa Monica by Bird in 2017. When shared scooters appeared, seemingly out of the blue, they prompted a deluge of complaints and lawsuits, involving injuries and hazards to pedestrians. But unfortunately, the scooter laws that emerged are based on some misunderstandings about scooter safety.
Shared Versus Owned
Many local and state-level electric scooter regulations came about in tandem with pilot programs for shared scooters, which means these laws were not designed with PEV owners in mind. The so-called problem of electric scooters might really be a problem with the sharing model itself.
Research consistently shows that an overwhelming percentage of scooter accidents involve inexperienced, first-time riders on shared scooters. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Shared scooter companies rely on millions of people who have never tried an e-scooter suddenly taking one on city streets and sidewalks. That usually happens without even a test ride to practice balancing, cornering, acceleration, and braking.
Safe Electric Scooter Riding Is Key
It might seem reasonable to expect adults to handle a small, two-wheeled electric scooter with ease right away, but this is based on the wrong-headed assumption that electric scooters, like children’s kick scooters, are toys. E-scooters are seriously fun and they are serious vehicles. (Imagine trying to maneuver a car in traffic if you’d never driven before, and consider that it takes months to learn to drive.)
In contrast to the majority of scooter renters, scooter owners tend to ride more carefully through experience. Most PEV riders have time to learn the basics before heading onto crowded streets. Not only are they looking out for others, but they are protecting an investment they’ve made in an electric scooter they hope will last them years, not just the length of their commute.
While specific laws can be unclear even in places where e-scooters aren’t explicitly banned, by far the best thing electric scooter riders can do is learn responsible riding practices and put them to use at all times.
Safe riding means staying to the right on all roads (in the U.S., at least), obeying traffic signs and signals, using turn signals (or hand signals or pro tip: foot signals so you can keep both hands on the handlebars!) to let drivers know your intentions, and remaining visible with light-colored clothing, reflectors, and headlights and taillights in low light or fog.
Riding safely also means riding at responsible speeds. Cruising along at 20 mph on the right side of the road feels exhilarating. Doing 20 mph on the sidewalk is almost homicidal.
Electric scooter riders should slow down on all sidewalks and bike lanes, paths, and trails. Pass on the left and alert cyclists and pedestrians with a horn or bell (or call out “on your left!”) before you pass them. If the walkways are crowded, get off the scooter and walk beside it, and always park scooters out of the way of pedestrians.
Who’s Liable for Damages in Electric Scooter Accidents?
Most scooter laws seem designed to reign in sharing companies themselves. Requirements that riders have drivers’ licenses or be over the age of 16 seem intended to reduce the pool of shared scooter riders who might cause public safety mishaps and pedestrian accidents.
Once scooters are on the road, complicated user agreements release sharing companies from most liabilities after the rider signs. If a rider were to cause an accident through recklessness or negligence—on either a shared scooter or a PEV—they might expect a citation, fine, or even more severe penalty… but that may not be the case, depending on the particular laws of a city or state.
The changing nature of these laws is frustrating, especially, since they raise so many legal questions about who is responsible for injuries and damages. For the time being, those questions will largely be determined in courts before they’re codified into law, since electric scooter legislation is almost entirely new. As a major part of the rapidly growing micromobility industry, electric scooters have forced lawmakers and city authorities to reconsider not only traffic laws but also traffic patterns and the future of transportation infrastructure itself.
Are Electric Scooter Laws Actually Enforced?
In the United States, at least, city streets were developed with an almost pointed hostility toward pedestrians, cyclists, and other smaller vehicles as highways cut through, around, and over urban neighborhoods. The result was streets that posed a danger to everyone who wasn’t sealed in a two ton steel box. That situation has changed as bike paths, trails, and lanes extend and cars receive less priority. Even so, most traffic laws are enforced to manage the dangers posed to pedestrians and other drivers by high-speed vehicles like cars, trucks, and motorcycles.
Obviously, such behavior as riding an electric scooter while intoxicated or sending texts is grossly negligent and could result in an infraction.
But on the whole, as long as scooter riders do not directly cause accidents, avoid high-speed streets, ride safely, and reasonably follow common sense rules of the road to the best of their ability, they are highly unlikely to be stopped by law enforcement.
The most common regulation that scooter riders break is their state’s speed limit, and …
…some regulations, such as those requiring helmets and lights, often come from laws governing motorcycles and mopeds, since many state legislatures simply imported those rules into scooter legislation. Helmet laws might be enforced to protect younger riders, yet, as with cyclists, they are unlikely to be enforced when it comes to adults.
However, no responsible safety authority recommends riding an e-scooter without a helmet and eye protection, or riding in low visibility conditions without lights or reflectors. Taking such precautions just makes good sense, whether required by law or not. We highly, highly recommend wearing helmets and will point out that well-designed products abound now that take away much of the fashion and appearance-related reasons for not wearing one: from premium tech-enabled helmets like UNIT 1 to a helmet by Voro Motors that imitates a very popular style.
When it comes to the enforcement of electric scooter laws, we here at ESG have seen only one law enforced consistently in dense, urban centers like Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, and these are laws that regulate speed. As we have tried to show above, these are also laws that protect the well-being of pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders, drivers, and electric scooter riders themselves.
Avoiding high-speed car traffic, slowing down in heavily foot-trafficked areas, and riding safely and visibly at all times means reducing speed when necessary, something that all electric scooter riders need to remember, whether they’re riding their own personal electric vehicle or a shared electric scooter rented from a large company.
For a definitive guide to electric scooter laws in 2022, see Unagi and ESG’s updated Electric Scooter Laws Comprehensive Guide, a reliable source for scooter laws since it began tracking them in 2019.
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