UWT Student Investigators; Scooters land in Tacoma head first

By Peter Pendras

Motorized foot scooters have shown up in cities across the United States since 2017.  Advertised as an eco-friendly solution to the “the first- and last-mile dilemma in public transportation” —  how transit riders make it to bus and train stops — e-scooter use comes with a host of other challenges.

Scooter vendors Lime and Bird started operation in Tacoma last September. Each vendor began with 60-day trial permits to place 250 scooters in the city. Those permits have since been extended to September 2019 while doubling the number of allowable scooters to 500 per company. The vendors can add more if scooter use increases above four rides per scooter per day.

Tacoma is still in the early stages of its scooter experiment. It is easy to see their appeal: with little more than an impulse and a credit card number, anyone with a smartphone can take a ride within seconds.

“It’s a perfect spot down here,” said Tacoma resident Ken Woods, who was trying out a scooter with his daughters. “Everybody I’ve seen on them has a big smile on their face. We’ll probably come back in the summer and rent a bunch.”

Rules for scooter use in Tacoma are covered under Municipal Code 11.06.040. Anyone who rides must wear a helmet. Anyone who does not gets a ticket — in theory.

“When the scooters arrived, the PD told us the time period and gave us handouts to make sure we were following the right ordinances,” Tacoma Police spokeswoman Lorretta Cool said. “At first we did not issue tickets because it was a trial period.”

That trial period has been extended into September 2019. When asked if the Tacoma PD was going to start issuing citations for scooter violations, Cool responded, “With a civil infraction, it’s always the officer’s discretion. Officers can choose to issue a ticket or not.”

The code also stipulates where and when scooters can be ridden. According to the code, “Motorized foot scooters may be operated on roadways, shoulders, sidewalks and alleys, but not on bicycle lanes or public paths.” But what is a sidewalk if not a public path?

Since e-scooters arrived last fall, the Tacoma Fire Department has tracked incidents involving scooter-related injuries.

“In 2018 there were nine incidents involving scooters reported,” Medical Services officer Mary Hallman wrote in an email. “Seven resulted in transport to local hospitals. The other two incidents did not result in transport. Two of the nine incidents involved cars striking the scooter at low rates of speed. All other incidents were due to rider error.”

The most serious injuries included one rider who lost consciousness for 10 seconds and another who fractured their leg. None of the injured riders wore helmets, Hallman said.

There have been no reported incidents involving scooters in 2019. It is possible that there have been incidents since October 2018 that did not require activation of 911 Emergency services.

Other cities with a longer history of scooter use have hit some speed bumps. Over an 18-month period, 360 people in Atlanta and 250 people in Nashville were injured in scooter-related accidents. Consumer Reports estimates that since late 2017 over 1,500 people have been injured in e-scooter incidents across the United States.

Dr. Tarak K. Trivedi, writing for the journal Emergency Medicine, conducted a year-long study of incidents in two ER departments in Southern California. Of the 249 cases reported, only 4.4 percent of users wore helmets, which were legally required at the time. Over 40 percent of the injured suffered head injuries, nearly a third suffered fractures, and more than a quarter sustained soft tissue injuries.

The study revealed that few people paid heed to laws dictating helmet use and age limits on scooters. California recently suspended the helmet requirement for riders of e-scooters over the age of 18. Representatives from Bird who lobbied for changing the law said they sought to make regulations consistent between bicycle and scooter laws.

When e-scooters are not in use they are parked in rows or left standing solo where the last ride ended. Sometimes they appear in clusters, seemingly abandoned.

In California cities such as Venice and Santa Monica, there has been a backlash to the scooter invasion. Business owners and residents are frustrated not only with scooters zig-zagging in and out of traffic, but with piles of scooters parked in these dense, pedestrian-friendly tourist towns. Scooters have shown up in dumpsters, set on fire or buried at sea. Some of these acts of vandalism have been filmed. There is even an Instagram site called Bird Graveyard that has upwards of 34,000 followers.

So far similar problems have not shown up in Tacoma.

“I remember seeing a pile of scooters down by Bates College,” Cool said. “I was looking for parking and several minutes later somebody was picking them up. I thought it was going to be horrible with piles of scooters everywhere. But they seemed pretty quick.”

The location of these scooters changes every day. An unseen army of freelance contractors round up the two-wheeled devices in their pickup trucks or SUVs to recharge and replace them in the field for another day of service.

But who checks the brakes? Who makes sure the throttle is not sticky and the lights work?

“Our team in Tacoma has 10 full-time employees and they are laser-focused on ensuring safe, reliable transportation,”  said Lime’s Tacoma Operations manager, Gabriel Sheer. “Scooters are brought in once a month at a minimum. Our Lime Juicers (people charging the e-scooters) let us know if a particular one needs to be brought offline or replaced.”

Both Lime and Bird are quick to point out that safety is their number one priority and deflect criticism of their own safety records by pointing at the high number of automobile collisions and fatalities involving cars. Both companies also remind everyone they have given away up to 75,000 free helmets, but people rarely use them.

When the Woods family took their first ride, they knew they were supposed to wear helmets.

“Yeah, you see that on the video when you first start up,” Woods said. “I’ve not seen one person wearing a helmet.”

No one in his family did either.