The investigation, the first from the CDC into scootermania injuries, comes after spreading reports of injuries and deaths related to scooters in cities including the District, Los Angeles and Dallas; it also follows recent news of scooter failures and breakdowns.
The devices, which became wildly popular soon after entering U.S. markets a year ago, are in dozens of cities nationwide and have led to a new category of injuries in emergency rooms. Cases of broken noses, wrists and shoulders, along with facial lacerations and fractures have been reported since last summer.
“This is kind of like a disease outbreak investigation — the disease in this case being injuries associated with dockless electric scooters,” said Jeff Taylor, manager of the Epidemiology and Disease Surveillance Unit at Austin Public Health, who is overseeing the study with the CDC.
“As we were seeing more scooters, we were hearing more and more from emergency medical services about accidents and injuries,” he said. “We were also hearing from hospitals about injuries. Ultimately, we are doing the study to better understand how we can prevent the injuries from happening.”
The CDC and the Austin health officials are examining severe injuries that occurred in Austin in a two-month period last fall, interviewing hundreds of injured riders and analyzing medical charts.
Scooter companies Bird, Spin and Lime say they support the CDC study. The companies have said safety is a top priority and they encourage users to take precautions such as avoiding wearing headphones or carrying anything in their hands while riding. Bird, Lime and Skip have basic safety information on their apps and labels on their scooters, as well as training instructions. Bird requires users to upload a driver’s license to confirm they are at least 18 years old. Some of the companies say they provide free helmets.
“Safety needs to be more than a priority for scooter companies. It needs to be the underpinning of the entire program,” Spin said in a statement. “We are working diligently to formalize rigorous operational procedures, fortify our hardware, enforce rules around usage and parking, and educate the public on safe riding and driving behavior. We plan to do all of this enforcement and education in close partnership with cities and universities, who must also do their part to ensure streets are well maintained and that vulnerable street users are protected from collision with cars and trucks.”
Lime, one of the world’s largest scooter companies, last month urged riders to take precautions while operating its scooters, citing a technical “bug” that can cause “sudden excessive braking during use.” Last year the company also pulled scooters out of California after discovering that a number of them may have been carrying batteries with the potential to catch fire.
“At Lime, the safety of our riders and the community is our number one priority,” Lime said in a statement. “We appreciate the CDC’s leadership on this very important issue, and we look forward to working with the industry, medical community and regulators to create a meaningful ecosystem for this new and evolving technology.”
Paul Steely White, director of safety policy and advocacy at Bird, said the company is encouraged that the CDC is examining the growing impact of e-scooters on mobility within cities.
“Data from tens of millions of shared e-scooter rides indicate that e-scooters and bicycles have similar risks and vulnerabilities,” he said. “Bird continues, along with our Global Safety Advisory Board, to advance policies that enhance the safety of those riding e-scooters and advocate for more protected bike lanes in our communities. It is beyond reproach that American cities must shift away from cars, and redesigning streets to protect those who choose bikes, e-scooters, and other micro-mobility options is what we need to keep our commuters safe.”
So far, Taylor said, data shows that many perceptions about scooter injuries are just plain inaccurate, including that a leading cause of injury is collision with cars.
“There may have been a perception that accidents with other motor vehicles were a primary cause of the injuries, but I don’t think we have found that. Some people say these accidents primarily occur at night when it’s dark, but we didn’t find that. They occur at all times of the day,” Taylor said. “Some people wonder whether people had been under the influence of alcohol, and we are not going to find that."
The report will issue recommendations as early as this spring, Taylor said. Among the recommendations, he said, is the use of helmets. The findings reveal a significant rate of head injuries and only a 2 percent rate of helmet usage in the sample studied, he said. The recommendations will also discourage pairs of riders on a single scooter, which he said leads to not only distractions, but also a lack of balance and more likelihood of a crash. He said it also would recommend women wearing heels switch to flats when riding.
The CDC provided four epidemiologists to assist in the data gathering and analysis of the Austin study of the “microbility vehicles.”