Since electric rental scooters hit the streets of St. Louis last summer, emergency-room doctors have seen dozens of scooter-related injuries, including broken bones and serious head trauma.
Rental services Bird and Lime introduced St. Louis to the motorized scooters in August. Doctors at the Washington University School of Medicine started seeing an increase in scooter-related injuries almost immediately.
“We were seeing as many as 11 injuries in a week. And that caught our attention,” said Larry Lewis, a professor of emergency medicine who works in the emergency department at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
The department recorded an average of six or seven scooter-related injuries a week starting in August, up from just one or two per week in previous months. During a 10-week period between August and October, at least 67 patients came to the emergency department after electric-scooter crashes. Only one was wearing a helmet. Three people had brain hemorrhages, and 17 broke bones in their arms or legs.
Lewis and three other doctors affiliated with Washington University wrote a letter to St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson in November, asking her to convene a task force to make policy changes that could protect riders.
“Our consensus was that [scooters] are serving a purpose, so it would be really nice if we can help make them safer,” Lewis said.
In response to the doctors’ letter, the city has organized a group of physicians, city officials and company representatives who will meet Friday to discuss safety concerns.
Deanna Venker, the commissioner of traffic for St. Louis, said that she doesn’t want to discuss what action the city might take until after the task force meets, when the city will decide “what and if there is a problem.”
Painful crashes, broken scooters
Samati Niyomchai first hopped on an electric rental scooter last fall. The social worker liked to ride between his office at Washington University’s School of Medicine and the gym.
“In general, it felt more efficient than just walking somewhere — especially if I had to get there in like a time crunch,” he said.
Niyomchai estimates he’d ridden Lime scooters several dozen times before he got into an accident last November. He was pulling up in front of the gym when the scooter snapped in half at its base. He scraped his knee but wasn’t seriously injured.
“I feel like, if I rented a car, the brakes shouldn’t go out. A wheel shouldn’t pop off. The battery shouldn’t be dead,” he said. “I expect a scooter that I’ve been using for a while to not suffer really serious equipment failure.”
Niyomchai alerted Lime that his scooter broke and hasn’t ridden since.
With scooters designed to reach 15 miles per hour on flat surfaces, some accidents are much worse than Niyomchai’s. Steven Lorber, an emergency-room doctor at St. Louis University Hospital, said that some patients come in with severe injuries after reaching much higher speeds going downhill.
“A lot of times, patients will hit a pothole, and they’ll go over the handlebars,” said Lorber. “So they oftentimes make contact with the ground with their teeth and face first.”
SLU Hospital saw about 40 electric-scooter injuries last year. Many were fairly minor, like cuts and road rash. But others were more serious, including head injuries and broken bones.
Doctors at SLU and Wash U are concerned that people just don’t realize how dangerous the scooters can be.
“It looks very much like a toy scooter, but these aren’t,” said Lorber. “These are much larger, they’re much more powerful, they’re much faster. And there is a skillset and a certain level of competence that somebody would have to have to ride it safely.”
Who’s keeping track?
It’s not clear how many people have been in scooter accidents in St. Louis. Emergency departments only track their own patients, and people with minor injuries may go to urgent-care centers or skip the doctor altogether. Washington University has started a study to learn more about how, where and how often scooter accidents happen.
According to a public records request, Lime reported zero accidents for electric scooters in St. Louis in 2018, whereas Bird did not address whether there were any accidents.
Venker, the commissioner of traffic, said the companies are supposed to provide accident numbers to the city. But the companies aren’t required to collect accident reports from outside sources. A Bird representative said that riders should report damaged scooters or accidents to the company, and Lime’s user agreement requires riders to report accidents and crashes. Riders don’t always follow those instructions.
And the St. Louis Fire Department doesn’t currently have a code that notes whether a scooter was involved in an accident, according to a department representative.
Venker added that safety is the rider’s responsibility.
In St. Louis, electric-scooter riders are required by local ordinance to wear helmets, and they’re not allowed to ride on sidewalks.
But many riders don’t follow these rules. Most people don’t carry a helmet, and scooters are often a spur-of-the-moment transportation mode that don’t require any training, licensing or education.
Wentzville resident Scott Westcott rode scooters regularly starting in August, and estimates he’s taken around 40 rides. He used them as convenient transportation for taking photographs around the city.
He was riding without a helmet on a sidewalk near the riverfront last week when he hit a metal line and flipped over the handlebars at the scooter’s max speed.
Doctors at Barnes-Jewish Hospital told Westcott he might have a hairline fracture. There, he enrolled in Wash U’s scooter-injury study.
Westcott knew about the laws, but said he thought the sidewalk was empty enough to be safe.
And he didn’t report the accident to Lime, and instead left a review.
“I gave it one star and said I thought I broke my arm, but I only did that because I thought whoever reading it might get a laugh out of it LOL,” he wrote by text.
What cities can do
Cities across the country are grappling with the sudden influx of scooters on their streets. Some, including Beverly Hills, California, have banned the scooters, citing public-safety concerns.
“I think right now our cities don't know how to handle this,” Lewis, the Washington University professor of emergency medicine, said. “The scores of cities that have this are all sort of wrestling with it the same way we are.”
The police could issue citations and enforce helmet use. But according to St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department spokeswoman Michelle Woodling, the department is prioritizing violent crimes.
“With over a 140-officer deficit it would be challenging to prioritize scooter enforcement,” Woodling said in an email.
Lewis said there are some other ways the city could improve riders’ safety, like improving road conditions and bike lane options in high-traffic areas and making clear laws about how scooters should share the road with other vehicles.
Increasing educational outreach and encouraging helmet use could also make a difference, Lewis said. Bird will send a free helmet to riders who pay for shipping, and Lime occasionally offers helmet giveaways.
The city planned its first electric-scooter task force meeting of doctors, city officials and company representatives on Friday, Jan. 11. But due to "impending weather," the event will be rescheduled to a currently undecided date.
Lewis said that many scooter injuries heal completely, “but it would have been better not to have had [an injury] in the first place.”
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