Despite the risks and realized dangers of on-demand scooters, city officials are wary of scaring off a valuable industry with regulations.
(TNS) — From broken bones and teeth to punctured lungs and lacerations requiring plastic surgery — injuries from riding dockless electric scooters have, according to medical professionals, landed people in emergency rooms all over California.
While San Francisco and Los Angeles are rolling out strict rules for start-up scooter companies operating in their jurisdictions, city officials in San Diego haven’t been able to agree on how best to address rising concerns.
The City Council has repeatedly brushed aside calls from some elected officials to impose regulations on dockless scooter companies operating locally, including Razor, Lime and Bird.
By contrast, pilot programs in Southern California and the Bay Area are instituting fees, collecting ridership data and requiring safety plans from startup scooter companies, which are flush with hundreds of millions of dollars in investor cash.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office recently told the Union-Tribune in an emailed statement that the city was looking into “developing a set of rules that focus on rider safety and operator responsibility that will allow for the natural growth of this alternative form of transportation.”
However, spokesman Greg Block said the mayor was skeptical about adopting a permitting system similar to those being piloted in other major cities.
“We don’t want to do anything that’s going to stop them from doing business here, but we want to figure out ways to make people be more responsible and safe with how they’re riding,” he said.
Councilwoman Barbara Bry, who has been calling on Mayor Faulconer and members of the City Council for months to reign in dockless scooter companies, called the city’s current hands-off approach “naive.”
“They’re using our streets and illegally using our sidewalks to make money and provide a service that I believe is valuable but needs to be regulated,” she said.
“We’re not going to scare them away,” she added. “We are the eighth largest city in the country. We have sunshine every day. We’re a tourist mecca. They’re going to be delighted to pay fees and have money upfront to pay for infrastructure.”
Treatment of scooter injuries have been mounting at Scripps Mercy Hospital, said Dr. Vishal Bansal, the hospital’s medical director of trauma.
“We’re having these electric scooters that can travel very fast, where there’s no safety restraint, no effort to know if the riders are intoxicated,” he said. “To me that’s a public-health disaster in the making.”
Scripps Mercy is now spearheading an effort to collect data on scooter injuries to quantify the issue and get a better sense of the circumstances that lead to the worst accidents, Bansal said.
“It’s a serious issue,” he said. “It’s getting worse, not better, and we don’t see any effort to improve safety of these devices in San Diego.”
Emergency physicians at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center have launched a similar effort, which ultimately envisions working with law enforcement to collect and catalog detailed injury reports.
“We’re creating this huge surveillance database were we link ambulance, police and hospital data all together so that we get as complete a picture as we can,” said Catherine Juillard, trauma surgeon at the hospital.
“We don’t want to be divisive about it,” she added. “It’s more about figuring out if there’s some low-hanging fruit in terms of safety that we could implement to make things safer.”
In the meantime, San Francisco recently announced it has chosen scooter companies Scoot and Skip for their permit program, in large part because the city approved of proposals by the businesses to improve public safety.
Specifically, they have pledged to deploy safety ambassadors and offer in-person training to the public. The companies are also deploying scooters in under-served neighborhoods and offering discounts to low-income users.
The program, which is administered by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, is recovering costs through an annual permit fee of $25,000 and a $10,000 endowment.
The city of Los Angeles is rolling out similar rules that require all scooters to have a posted notice, in at least 40-point font, telling users not to ride on the sidewalks. The city is also requiring scooter companies to limit vehicle speeds to 15 miles per hour.
Companies must pay $20,000 a year for a permit to operate in Los Angeles, and a $130-per-vehicle fee. Operators are also required to maintain a 24-hour hotline for complaints, specifically for improperly parked or broken scooters.
In San Diego, where long-promised bike lanes throughout the city have yet to fully materialize, many scooter users have also taken to riding on sidewalks, frustrating business and unnerving pedestrians.
However, it’s unclear how, if at all, the city plans to address the situation. The police department has said that ticketing scooter riders is a low priority given limited resources.
At the same time, Lime and Bird, according to disclosure reports, have paid local lobbyists tens of thousands of dollars in recent months to meet with the mayor and City Council and, at least in part, oppose regulations that would limit where the scooters could operate.
All three scooter companies operating in San Diego, Lime, Bird and Razor declined multiple interview requests for this story.
Lime issued this email statement: "Safety is our top priority, which is why we urge riders to practice safe riding not only for their own protection, but also for the safety of the larger community. We also urge riders to wear helmets both through notifications on the app and on the actual scooter.”
One of the most vocal opponents of regulating scooter companies has been Councilman Chris Ward — whose District 3 includes some of the areas most popular among scooter riders, from downtown to North Park, Hillcrest and Little Italy.
Ward, who also declined interview requests for this story, led the charge against a recently proposed ban on scooters on the boardwalk in Mission Beach and Pacific Beach.
Circulate San Diego, a nonprofit that advocates for bicycle safety and public transit, has also taken a dim view of imposing regulations on the new industry.
Maya Rosas, advocacy manager with the transportation nonprofit, said that the best way to protect scooter riders and get them off the sidewalk is for the city to follow through on plans to build bicycle lanes.
“Building safe travel lanes and removing conflicts between cars and other modes is what saves lives and eliminates risk,” she said.
The treasurer of Circulate San Diego’s board of directors, Clarissa Falcon, has been hired by Bird to lobby City Hall. She deferred a request for an interview to her client.
Councilman Chris Cate’s office said that it plans to address concerns at the City Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee on Wednesday. Representatives for scooter companies are scheduled to give presentations and take questions from elected officials.
©2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.