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University of Texas Grapples with Surge in On-Campus Scooter Use

Austin has more than 13,000 e-scooters, many of which are used on the UT campus, triggering calls for tighter policies around their use by students, faculty and employees.

(TNS) — As electric scooters have swarmed throughout the Austin area, the University of Texas is among the local institutions grappling with how to handle the popularity and risks of the new technology.

With its spring semester underway, UT has tightened its rules for student use of e-scooters on campus and is also looking to control faculty use of the vehicles.

The university said it is examining whether to ban work-related use of e-scooters for UT employees, a possibility that has raised questions about employer rights in Texas and who should be liable for injuries sustained when riding an e-scooter.

"There's a misconception that these scooters are toys, but they are motorized vehicles," said Jack Zinda, founder of Austin-based personal injury law firm Zinda Law Group. "Part of the problem is the impression of these things, which is is they are easy to use. They are not."

There are currently more than 13,000 e-scooters in use in Austin from six companies, according to city data.

While e-scooters have become a popular mode of short-distance transportation, their use has also led to accidents. At top speeds of about 15 miles per hour, the e-scooters are deceptively fast. From June to November of last year, Austin-Travis County EMS responded to more than 180 calls regarding scooter-related accidents, public records show.

At UT, students are only allowed to use e-scooters in bike lanes, are required to park them in designated areas or face a $150 fine and are only allowed to drive them up to 8 miles per hour, among other restrictions. Numerous universities throughout the country have implemented scooter-related policies, with most concentrating on traffic and parking-related issues. Some campuses, such as Arizona State University and Miami University, have banned e-scooters entirely.

When it comes to UT employees, UT spokeswoman Olga Finneran said the university is examining whether to prohibit work-related trips on campus such as traveling from an office to a classroom because "they would be subject to workers compensation claims if the employee was injured."

Finneran said UT has not determined if and when it might implement the policy, nor how long it would be in place.

Texas is not highly regulated when it comes to labor laws, Zinda said. The state has what's known as "employment-at-will" measures, meaning both employers and employees can end their relationship without any reason or notice. Employers generally have wide discretion for which rules they can implement.

Banning work-relates use of e-scooters, therefore, appears to be within UT's legal right, Zinda said. While UT wouldn't be able to force staff members to follow the rule, it could legally fire them if they were to violate it.

The university might face legal trouble if it allowed only certain staff members to ride e-scooters, said local employment lawyer Colin Walsh.

"If (rules) are applied discriminatorily," Walsh said, "then it is different."

E-scooters began to roll out across America early last year, causing both disruption for city leaders who were quickly forced to regulate the devices and leading to competition between established transportation companies like Uber and e-scooter startups such as Lime and Bird. Austin limits the amount of e-scooters each company can deploy locally and also has its own set of guidelines for riding e-scooters. Companies typically allow anyone to ride the vehicles, with their terms placing the liability on customers.

Lime, one of the top e-scooter companies in Austin, said it has implemented several new safety measures, such as building e-scooters with upgraded wheels, better suspension, additional braking and improved balance, and that it invested more than $3 million in educating its customers on how to properly operate the devices.

"Safety of our riders and the community is our No. 1 priority," Lime spokeswoman Juliette Coulter said in an emailed response. "Every day we're innovating on technology, infrastructure and education to set the standard for micromobility safety."

Regardless of any rules employers put in place, however, liability will continue to be a problem, Zinda said.

UT's fines on companies that leave e-scooters improperly parked, for example, could eventually make their way down to students. But what if a company misidentifies the culprit?

Those new situations are worrisome, said Zinda, who said he has received a number of calls from people injured after riding a scooter wondering where the blame should go.

"Unfortunately, we can't help people a lot of times," Zinda said, because of the terms of service consumers must agree to before riding the scooters.

"Companies are putting scooters on streets without taking on any of the risk," he said. "I think you might see more issues pop up as more people try to copy this model."

©2019 Austin American-Statesman, Texas. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.