THE QUESTION for cities should not be whether to allow electric scooters on their streets. It should be how to welcome them safely. Recent studies on scooter-related emergency room visits provide not an argument for prohibition but instead a kind of manual on how to proceed with caution.
Researchers writing in the medical journal JAMA Network Open found that, in one year in two Los Angeles emergency rooms, more injuries resulted from riding e-scooters than cycling or walking. A recent review of a Portland, Ore., pilot program is more encouraging: The data revealed fewer injuries than critics had feared, and officials noted that by reducing the frequency of car trips, the scooter boom could lead to an overall reduction in trauma.
Still, people got hurt in Portland, too — and often for the same reasons they got hurt in Los Angeles. The culprit behind many visits was predictable: failure to use a helmet. The most common diagnosis in the Los Angeles study, and also the most likely to be severe, was head injury, and only 5 percent of patients with head injuries had been wearing a helmet. In public observation sessions, researchers discovered that more than 94 percent of riders went helmetless.
Local laws mandating that riders armor up are unlikely to reverse a cultural trend away from proper protection. E-scooters are appealing for their grab-and-go convenience. It is unlikely that Americans will start lugging helmets around just in case they decide to take a scooter ride. More promising is the proposal that companies attach headgear to their products. Consumer fear of catching head lice could be assuaged by disposable liners, either dispensed in kiosks next to popular parking spots or by convenience stores in partnership with e-scooter firms.
Then there is sidewalk riding, which puts pedestrians, as well as scooter riders, who often do not heed city restrictions, at risk. There’s a technical fix to this problem: Sensors on curbs could stop scooters in their tracks. The same gadgets could allow rides to end only in designated parking areas.
These changes would be helpful, but making e-scooters truly safe will take more aggressive efforts not only from companies but also from cities. Bicycling in the United States, as it gained ground, also resulted in an increase in injuries in many cities, but those that responded by creating bike lanes are now seeing a significant improvement. One aid was, counterintuitively, more bicycles: Drivers became accustomed to driving alongside riders without endangering them.
Countering the climate crisis will depend in part on shaping a less car-centric model for urban transportation. If the perils and perks of riding greener vehicles prompt Americans to rethink how their cities are built, that’s a big step, or scoot, forward.