Scooter Accidents, Death Raise Concern in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Fort Lauderdale’s e-scooter program is in the spotlight, as city leaders weigh whether to impose new rules to make scooter riders and other pedestrians safer. So far, 74 riders have been injured and one killed.

by Brittany Wallman and John Maines, Sun Sentinel / June 24, 2019
Shutterstock/Andriy Bilous

(TNS) — Fort Lauderdale attorney David Blattner remembers hearing the loud thump of his body against a pickup truck.

Blattner, a 55-year-old real estate attorney at Becker and Poliakoff, was aboard an electric scooter southbound along Federal Highway, whizzing along on a chilly December night to meet his mother at Starbucks downtown. He was in the crosswalk, and the light was green. Before he could reach the next curb, the driver of the oncoming truck made a right turn from Federal and hit him, the police report says.

“I thought they were cool and fun," Blattner said of the rechargeable scooters that are rented using a cellphone app. “I thought they’d be a fun way to get around town.”

Several broken bones and two surgeries later, Blattner, still on crutches, said he wishes the e-scooters could be outlawed. But since that’s unlikely, he said, safety reforms are needed — like slower speeds, fewer scooters, and better public awareness and education.

“They don’t mix with cars,” Blattner said. "They certainly don’t mix with pedestrians.”

Fort Lauderdale’s e-scooter program is in the spotlight now, as city leaders weigh whether to impose new rules to make scooter riders and other pedestrians safer. A new law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday legalized the motorized scooters on Florida streets, where they’ll be treated like bicycles and allowed to zip along in bike lanes.

Fort Lauderdale, one of the first Florida cities to welcome them to sidewalks last fall, will now discuss whether to remove them from some busy sidewalks — like Las Olas Boulevard and State Road A1A — or ask scooter companies to lower speeds from 15 miles an hour to something slower, require helmets or impose age restrictions. Cities also can regulate where and how scooters are parked on public streets or sidewalks.

The new devices, unleashed on streets across the country in 2018, are wildly popular, helping thousands of people make short trips without getting into a car. Companies Lime, Bird, Bolt and Gotcha rolled out hundreds of scooters in Fort Lauderdale as part of a yearlong pilot program.

Dan Lindblade, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, is among their advocates, likening them to another disruptive new technology, the Uber ridesharing app. He urged commissioners not to over-regulate.

But their detractors point to dangers. The new mode of transportation has filled emergency rooms.

A South Florida Sun Sentinel review of Fort Lauderdale fire-rescue records found 74 scooter riders were in accidents from December through April. Of those, 57 were taken to the hospital. Ten suffered severe injuries.

Most of the accidents happened Friday through Sunday, and most were downtown, on Las Olas Boulevard or at the beach. A little more than half involved people 18 to 35 years old. Only five people were younger than 18 or older than 55.

Though several people suffered fractured skulls and life-altering injuries, only one man died.

Tina Huff, his mother, said the phone rang out in the middle of the night in Dover, Delaware, in mid-April. She ran to the phone and saw it was a hospital calling.

A new widow with an adult son and daughter, her heart sank. She cried as she remembered “the call you never want to get.”

She’d seen her son, Mathias Huff, a musically talented, athletic 27-year-old, a month prior at Arlington National Cemetery. It was her husband’s burial.

“That was the last time I saw him,” she recalled. “We buried his father.”

The Fort Lauderdale police report from Huff’s accident says he was riding a Lime scooter north at 11:30 p.m. in the right traffic lane on Federal Highway, about five blocks north of Broward Boulevard. A 22-year-old Fort Lauderdale woman driving north in the same lane hit him. His head struck her windshield, his mother said, fracturing his skull.

“Mathias was a really unique young man. He had a big future,” said Huff, a 67-year-old retired assistant schools superintendent. “He was one of the most successful salespeople in his area. He had a great future. He had a pretty girlfriend. You know, and that’s it,” she said through tears. “No wife, no children, no nothing.”

Another victim, 28-year-old Ashanti Jordan, a security guard at Broward Health Medical Center, has been in a vegetative state since Dec. 28, when she was struck while riding a scooter on the south end of downtown. Her skull was fractured.

A 14-year-old boy, Alexis Gutierrez, also was critically injured on Federal Highway downtown, struck at 3:30 in the morning on Dec. 1 by a hit-and-run driver. He suffered a head injury and broken bones.

“How can it be worth these lives of young people?” Huff asked. “How can it be worth it?”

Consumer Reports reported this month that eight people have died nationwide using rented e-scooters since 2017. The count did not included the fatality in Fort Lauderdale.

Fort Lauderdale last November was the first city in Florida to pass a law allowing scooters on sidewalks. Until the new statewide law, they were forbidden from streets.

City leaders will discuss July 9 what to do next.

Mayor Dean Trantalis said the scooter companies should improve safety. Though state law doesn’t require helmets, for example, scooter companies could.

“Considering the frequency of use and the fact that they’ve become very popular,” Trantalis said, “I think it’s time for these companies to take more responsibility in ensuring the safety of their riders, and we’re happy to open a dialogue to discuss those options.”

Trantalis said a city survey showed the scooters take cars off the road and ease congestion. They could help fill short gaps in transit, getting a bus or train rider to the courthouse, for example.

Motorized scooters and bikes are banned for now from the barrier island, through Aug. 18.

Because they’re so new, there’s a relative dearth of data about accidents and deaths, and what might improve safety.

Hoping to recommend safety improvements, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently conducted its first study of e-scooter accidents, in Texas. The agency concluded that very few victims wore helmets. A significant number, nearly a third, were first-time riders. And a little more than half of the accidents occurred in the streets.

The CDC said safety enhancements should aim at the risks that can be prevented. The use of helmets might help, for example.

In emails to City Hall, some residents asked that the sidewalks be returned to pedestrians, at least at the beach.

Richard Kolodynski, a senior citizen living in a condo near Sunrise Boulevard, emailed City Hall to complain of scooter riders zipping and zagging at high speeds, buzzing within inches of his body.

He said he was going to buy a double-wide baby carriage “to provide me with a safety buffer.”

A majority on the City Commission favors more regulations.

Commissioner Heather Moraitis said she supports keeping scooters off the barrier island permanently. Riders could cross the bridge and park them.

“We already have limited walking options in the city," she said, "and I want to preserve A1A for pedestrians.”

©2019 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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