One rider brain damaged for life, badly hurt pedestrians… We’re already treating the casualties of electric scooters, says top neurosurgeon CHRISTOPHER UFF
He appeared from nowhere and swerved past my eight-year-old daughter on the pavement at 20mph, missing her by a fraction of an inch.
The potential killer was in his early 20s and smartly dressed in a crisp dark business suit –almost certainly a young professional on his way through the genteel streets of North London to work in the city centre. He didn’t apologise or even look back.
But he wasn’t a so-called ‘Lycra lout’ cyclist, a distracted 4×4 driver, white van man or speeding motorcyclist. He was one of the growing army of electric scooter riders on our streets and, more particularly, on our pavements.
It seems clear that a lot of people using these machines see them as an easy and fun way to get around. I suspect that few take the elementary precautions of high-vis clothing, helmets or other protective equipment. I doubt that many have training on them.
And although it’s currently illegal to ride them on public streets, pavements or bike lanes, few users seem to know.
A young man rides on an e-scooter with a passenger in the pedestrianised area of Croydon shopping centre
The Government is currently conducting a trial of electric, or e-scooter, rental fleets in cities across the country with a view to legalisation – a decision is expected within weeks, with Ministers under pressure to legalise them from Green groups, organisations such as Transport for London and from commuters looking for Covid-safe transport.
As head of neurosurgery at the busiest major trauma centre in the UK, I would urge extreme caution.
These machines are new and are largely untested in busy urban environments. Perhaps because they seem like a toy, they are often ridden with a reckless disregard for safety. The consequences are all too serious.
YouTube star Emily Hartridge was the first e-scooter fatality
TV presenter and YouTube star Emily Hartridge is believed to have been the first e-scooter rider to die on a British road.
The 35-year-old was killed in a collision with a lorry in July last year. A statement on her Instagram page the day after her death said: ‘We all loved her to bits and she will never be forgotten.’
Earlier this month, a coroner ruled she had been riding her e-scooter too fast with an under-inflated tyre at the time of the crash. The inquest, held at Westminster coroner’s court, Central London, heard that Emily, of Hambledon, Hampshire, died instantly of her injuries following the collision in Batttersea, South-West London.
Senior coroner Dr Fiona Wilcox concluded her death was accidental, saying: ‘Ms Hartridge was riding an electric scooter when she lost control after passing over an inspection hatch in the cycle lane and was thrown under the path of an HGV. She died instantly.
‘The scooter was being unsuitably driven, too fast and with an under-inflated tyre and this caused the loss of control and her death.’
At the time, e-scooters were illegal to ride in the UK other than on private land with permission.
E-scooters are responsible for a growing number of serious injuries to both riders and pedestrians brought into the Royal London Hospital, where I work. We’ve already treated one rider who will suffer brain damage for the rest of his life and, sadly, at least one person has already been killed. (Television presenter Emily Hartridge is believed to have been the first electric scooter rider in this country to die after she was thrown into the path of a lorry in South London in July last year.)
We’ve also treated a number of pedestrians who have been knocked over by e-scooters on pavements. Typically, their injuries range from broken bones to skull fractures and, in one case, a brain haemorrhage. The most severely hurt have injuries similar to those seen after high-speed cycling accidents.
The evidence from abroad is unambiguous. In Paris, which started its scheme in 2018 and now has 20,000 e-scooters, there has been a trail of chaos and death. Last year, a 30-year-old man died after a motorbike crashed into his e-scooter from behind in the fast lane of a motorway. He wasn’t wearing a helmet and was the third e-scooter fatality in just four months. Another was an 81-year-old man who died after being knocked down on a suburban pavement.
Head injuries are not a trifling matter. My unit sees 250 severe cases a year. These patients can be in hospital for months, one in four will die and recovery for the survivors can take up to two years. Many don’t make a full recovery. They’ll probably never go back to work and may require life-long care and supervision. A significant number have significant personality changes.
Traumatic brain injury costs the UK economy about £15 billion a year, is the leading cause of death and disability in under-40s and is now classed as a global epidemic. This is because people – mostly young men – do reckless things.
But there are many reasons why e-scooters are particularly dangerous. One of the biggest problems is that they are new – drivers and pedestrians don’t know what to do when they see them, if they see them at all.
We haven’t worked out what protective equipment is appropriate – most people don’t bother – and we haven’t worked out whether they are best on the road, pavement, bike lane, or none of them. There’s no requirement to have any lessons, pass a test or be insured to ride an e-scooter.
It doesn’t help that the rules are hazy. Though e-scooters are illegal to use on the road – you could be fined £300, notch up six points on your driving licence and have your scooter impounded – they are freely available to buy. Machines typically have a maximum speed of 20mph to 30mph, though the rental machines currently being trialled are limited to 15.5mph.
Several rental schemes have rapidly run into problems. Last week, a 12-month trial in Coventry was halted after just five days after local people complained of ‘hell on two wheels’. There were angry reports of speeding riders narrowly missing pedestrians along the city’s pavements and driving on the wrong side of the road.
Television presenter Emily Hartridge is believed to have been the first electric scooter rider in this country to die after she was thrown into the path of a lorry in South London in July last year
The hire companies say they encourage riders to wear helmets, but at a recent parliamentary committee hearing, most said helmet enforcement would ‘put people off’. Eleanor Southwood, chair of the Royal National Institute of Blind People told the same committee the top speed for e-scooters should be set as close to walking speed as possible, with a maximum of 12.5mph.
That seems a sensible approach. But instead of insisting that rental machines have relatively low power and weight to reduce the momentum of any collision, the Government has taken an opposite approach.
Most scooters are rated at 250 watts, but the Government has set the maximum power rating for hire machines at 500 watts, which would provide incredible acceleration. The Bicycle Association, a trade body representing the UK cycling industry, recommended rental scooters should weigh a maximum of around 44 lb, but the Government set a limit of 120 lb, presumably to allow for larger batteries and reduced charging.
I can easily see how e-scooters may seem an attractive option for anyone returning to work after a Covid-19 furlough. But if they’re allowed on pavements, they will kill pedestrians. And if they’re allowed on the roads, the riders will kill themselves. Meanwhile, weaving in and out of vehicles and pedestrians alike, they are creating fresh uncertainty and danger on already crowded roads and pavements.
There’s also a question of insurance. A typical insurance payout for a 20-year-old who can never work again because of a severe head injury may be in the region of £10 million. Anyone injured by an illegally ridden private e-scooter will likely receive nothing.
I have no plans to ride an e-scooter because I think they are too dangerous. If I had to ride one, I would wear a motorbike helmet and high-visibility clothing. And I wouldn’t head into traffic without practising on a quiet road first.
The emergency services are known for their dark humour. In our parlance, motorbikes are known as ‘donor cycles’. It’s a grim saying borne out of truth.
We don’t yet have a word for e-scooters. I truly hope we won’t need one.
Yoga teacher, 29, nearly drowns after electric scooter rider knocks her from behind into canal
A yoga teacher nearly drowned after she was struck by an electric scooter and sent flying into a canal as she cycled along a narrow towpath late at night.
In one of the most shocking incidents yet involving the battery-powered vehicles, the 28-year-old woman spent five minutes struggling in the water, trying to scramble up a high-sided bank.
It is believed the scooter rider, who was listening to music on headphones, rode off without realising what happened.
At one point, the woman gave up trying to clamber out and instead tried to swim to a houseboat 150 yards away, but the weight of her heavy cardigan and rucksack pulled her under the water. A passer-by then heard her cries and came to her rescue.
Her mother told The Mail on Sunday last night that her daughter was extremely shaken up by what happened, adding: ‘One minute she was cycling on the canal path, then there was this encounter with this electric scooter which pushed her into the water. It was so lucky the passer-by came along when he did.’
Cyclists and an electric scooter rider vie for space under the bridge beside Regent’s Canal where the young woman was knocked off
Her daughter was treated in hospital for shock, given a tetanus jab and tested for Weil’s disease, a potentially deadly bacterial infection carried in rats’ urine which contaminates water and river banks.
‘Apart from the shock, she is thankfully unhurt,’ said her mother.
The hit-and-run happened along the Regent’s Canal in Hackney, East London, last week, the day before a year-long e-scooter trial – one of many being conducted around the country – was halted in Coventry over safety concerns.
‘My daughter doesn’t think that the scooter rider even realised what happened,’ said the mother.
‘Although she is a good swimmer, her rucksack and clothes made it hard for her to swim. She found it difficult and tiring trying to pull herself out – she is only 5ft 3in.’
A close friend of the yoga teacher thanked the passer-by on the neighbourhood app, Nextdoor, saying: ‘I dread to think what might have happened if you hadn’t been around.’
Rental e-scooters were made legal on roads in Britain this summer in an attempt to ease pressure on public transport amid the coronavirus crisis, but privately owned scooters cannot be used on public roads or pavements. Their speed has also been capped at 15.5mph and riders should wear helmets.
Private owners of the battery-powered machines face a fine and points on their driving licence if they use them on public roads, but despite this, sales of e-scooters, which cost up to £300, have soared and the rules are widely flouted.
Warning people using the towpath to ‘stay vigilant’, the yoga teacher’s rescuer, a photographer, said on Nextdoor: ‘Last night, I was walking home around 1am and came upon a girl struggling to get out of the canal after being knocked in by a guy on an electric scooter.’
Regent’s Canal is 5ft deep but its 2ft-high bank makes it all but impossible to clamber out of the water unaided. Under the bridge, the path can barely accommodate two people standing side by side. Boat owners along the canal said the e-scooter problem had worsened over the past 12 months.
Matthew Channing, 53, said: ‘The path is already too narrow for pedestrians and cyclists but it’s become a complete death-trap with these souped-up electric scooters that whizz along. It’s a real blight along the towpath. The worst part is that they’re so quiet that no one can hear them coming so it doesn’t surprise me that people are getting knocked in the water.’
And Tim Drury said the boating community was growing increasingly frustrated by e-scooters along the towpath. ‘These are motorised vehicles that rave along these paths at up to 20mph. Cyclists at least slow down and get off and walk under the bridges, but the e-scooters seem to think the rule doesn’t apply to them. I really don’t think they should be allowed along here.’
It was reported last week that e-scooters will be fitted with number plates after warnings that antisocial behaviour on them is worse in England than anywhere in Europe. The company behind the trial in Coventry and at least 12 other cities will install identification plates to ensure that errant riders can be tracked.
Critics of e-scooters include the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, which says that ‘the public benefits of e-scooters are largely illusory’.
Executive director David Davies said of the Hackney incident: ‘This sounds very distressing. The Government needs to take action to control illegal scooter use. It does seem as if people are abusing the e-scooter trials, they are being used in the wrong areas, used on pavements, and it’s quite difficult to enforce and police that. The danger is that it just gets more and more out of hand.’
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