Transportation

Dallas ERs May Shine Light on Scooter-Related Injuries

Since motorized on-demand scooters zipped onto the national scene, cities have been struggling to quantify the risk they bring to streets.

by Julieta Chiquillo, The Dallas Morning News / October 24, 2018

(TNS) —  Scary headlines trailed the rental scooters that zipped into Dallas this summer. One tumble over the trolley tracks in Uptown sent a woman to the hospital with two black eyes in July. Less than two months later, a man died after falling off a scooter in Old East Dallas.

Meanwhile, emergency-room doctors in major U.S. cities pointed to a spike in severe accidents following the arrival of motorized scooters.

As more people ditch $1-an-hour bikes for two tiny wheels and a footboard, should Dallas be worried?

City hall is not sounding alarm bells. This month, Dallas officials pulled up 911 calls since July and said only four motorized scooter crashes were reported to police — though the officials did not include the accident in Old East Dallas. Those calls were a blip next to 43 bicycle incidents and 5,308 motor vehicles crashes reported over the same time span.

At a recent city council briefing, officials also recapped Dallas paramedics' records: 13 scooter patients from May to September.

Of course, not everyone injured in a crash or fall calls 911. But getting a fuller picture based on hospital visits is difficult because most Dallas ERs surveyed by The Dallas Morning News don’t track scooter injuries.

Parkland Memorial Hospital identified 37 emergency complaints so far this year in which staff members mentioned scooters, though it kept no record on whether they were the electric kind. All but four of those scooter-related ER trips happened since July, according to statistics from the taxpayer-funded hospital. (Bicycle-related reports over the same time period total 61.)

Another local ER that has documented scooter-related injuries is Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. It logged a total of six complaints tied to motorized scooters from January to September.

Although Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas doesn’t keep scooter statistics, one of its orthopedic trauma surgeons said he and his colleagues had seen at least seven scooter patients who required “major surgical intervention” since July.

“Most of the patients I’ve seen basically just lost control of the scooter,” Dr. Alan Jones said. “Some of them were trying to navigate around things, but the majority have not been struck by a car.”

City leaders set some rules when they decided to allow the scooters for a six-month pilot that started in late June. Riders must steer clear of public trails and downtown sidewalks. Per state law, they can travel on streets where the speed limit doesn’t exceed 35 mph.

But police are not chasing after rule-breakers. Officers have been instructed to give warnings, not citations. In fact, no ticket tied to the scooter ordinance has been issued since it passed in late June, according to police records.

You have to be at least 18 and have a driver's license to ride a rental scooter in Dallas. The city doesn't demand that riders wear helmets, though the apps ask users to wear them.

In nearly four months since scooters made their debut, Dallasites have racked up many scars, not all of which went on to become a statistic on a city slideshow.

What riders say

Some people skinned their knees. Others broke a body part, or worse.

George Hawkins II said he was riding a Lime scooter home Oct. 6 after picking up dinner from Whole Foods in Uptown when he spotted a pothole on Fairmount Street and swerved to avoid it. He said he hit another one instead, which sent him rolling over the street, tearing his jeans and cutting his knees.

“I probably won’t get on one of those for a long time,” said Hawkins, 32, who had a paramedic friend look at his injuries.

Olivia Schmitt was also riding home in Uptown on a recent Saturday — but on the sidewalk, which the Bird app warns against (though the city allows it outside of downtown, the Cedars and Deep Ellum). After seeing that her roommate was traveling on the main road, Schmitt decided to join her.

But, Schmitt said, as she zipped onto McKinney Avenue, she hit the trolley tracks and lost control of the scooter, landing on her abdomen on the side of the road. Soon she realized she had chipped her front tooth — an injury that she said ended up requiring a root canal.

“Because it was a Saturday, finding a dentist that was open was nearly impossible,” the 23-year-old said.

The trolley tracks also played a role in Kelley Mitchum’s headline-making scooter ride in July, which sent her to the ER with scraped arms and knees, a gash on her nose and black eyes.

Many people were puzzled by Jacoby Stoneking’s last ride on Munger Boulevard. The 24-year-old reported he had fallen and hurt himself before he was found unconscious by a Lyft driver in September, his rental scooter snapped in half. Stoneking's fatal head injuries were ruled an accident by the medical examiner.

Dallas police have concluded that Stoneking injured himself in the fall but that he wasn't on the scooter when it was run over by an unknown vehicle.

For Jason Marshall, the question is not whether scooters are safe, but how Dallas can be safer for scooter users like him. The 44-year-old Uptown resident has been gliding to work, the movie theater and his local DART station for months.

"I don't own a car by choice, but there's plenty of people who don't own a car in Dallas because they can't afford one or for other reasons," he said. "If we had a protected bike infrastructure throughout the city, the people who would benefit the most would be lower-income people who can safely ride a bike to transit and bus stops. And that same infrastructure will be used by scooters."

This city of Dallas map shows where scooter users are forbidden from riding on the sidewalk, which is the area bound by blue.

What hospital staff say

Until this summer, scooter-related injuries had been a distant memory for Jones, the Baylor orthopedic surgeon. He said the last time he treated a bunch of them was more than a decade ago, when parents bought their children the popular Razor scooter for Christmas.

What’s surprising about scooter injuries is that they can be more severe than those from bicycle accidents, which tend to be collarbone, wrist and shoulder fractures, Jones said.

“We see those things in scooter crashes, but also some very severe fractures of the knee and femur that are really unusual without an automobile ... or something being involved,” he said.

Jones pointed to the case of a formerly healthy 38-year-old woman he treated this summer. She was riding an electric scooter on a sidewalk, hit a bump and flew off.

“She had a very severe fracture of her thigh bone — her femur — down into her knee joint, which required both a hospitalization and a major operation and a prolonged recovery period,” Jones said.

Sure, no gear will completely protect scooter riders or cyclists from getting hurt, but they should at least wear a helmet, medical professionals say.

“Brain injuries are often something you can’t recover from,” warns Shelli Stephens-Stidham, director of the Injury Prevention Center of Greater Dallas at Parkland.

Bird, the largest scooter operator in Dallas with 3,000 vehicles, offers to mail free helmets to its customers. The company said in a statement it had given away more than 50,000 of them.

Some places have tried making the helmets immediately available. Vancouver’s bike-share program in Canada rents a free helmet with each bike and provides disposable liners that fit like shower caps under the helmets.

But similar efforts closer to Dallas have foundered. Seattle’s public bike-share program that offered $2 helmet rentals went out of business last year. Across the country, Boston’s much-publicized helmet vending machines that were installed in 2013 no longer appear listed in the city’s bike-share website.

What city leaders say

Dallas council members have signaled that they will extend scooters' stay through June 2019, at least. To illustrate their popularity, city leaders point to data from Lime, which operates both bikes and scooters in Dallas: Scooters racked up 245,700 trips in the span of about three months — about half the number of trips bike-share logged in nearly a year.

But city council member Adam McGough raised questions about scooter maintenance and complained that two devices he rented locked up in acceleration mode — in one instance forcing him onto the middle of the road, he said.

Michael Rogers, the city’s transportation director, told the council during a briefing Oct. 17 that his office has requested maintenance records from rental scooter and bike companies.

“It can be dangerous,” McGough told Rogers. “Little cracks all of a sudden appear much bigger when you’re on a tiny-tire scooter. It’s just important that we stay on top of this. And I’m not feeling comfortable we’re staying on top of this.”

Bird said in a statement that it has a support team that is available “around the clock” to address safety questions and reports about damaged scooters.

Lime, the second biggest scooter operator in Dallas, didn’t return an email seeking comment on its maintenance practices.

Council member Philip Kingston proposed green-lighting scooters for another year. He also encouraged the city’s park board to find a responsible way to lift the ban on those devices on public trails, where bicycles that are heavier and faster than scooters are allowed.

“I’m hearing a lot of people claim that they were almost run down on the sidewalk, but I have yet to meet someone who was actually run down on the sidewalk,” he said at the council briefing. “What I think I’m hearing is more people being resistant to change than legitimate safety concerns.”

©2018 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.