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Commission zeros in on scooter safety

Tuesday, May 7, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

A landmark study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Austin Public Health Department documented that 192 dockless scooter riders were injured between Sept. 5 and Nov. 30 last year.

During that time, “There were about two injuries per day on average,” said David Zane, an epidemiologist with Austin Public Health, at the May 6 meeting of the Public Safety Commission. Forty-eight percent of those were head injuries in a rider population where only one person was documented to be wearing a helmet at the time of the accident.

When those who were injured were interviewed by APH, Zane explained that while many expressed an interest in wearing a helmet the next time they rode a scooter, “they had some challenges in terms of how (they) would get access to a helmet.”

Helmet access proved to be an important consideration for commissioners for when the city rewrites the ordinances associated with dockless scooters. “Nearly half of the electric scooter injuries in Austin were considered severe,” Commissioner Daniela Nuñez pointed out.

Nevertheless, Jason Redfern, parking enterprise manager at Austin Transportation Department, noted that in the ordinance rewrite for dockless vehicles that is going before Council at the end of the month, there will be no mention of mandating helmets.

While severe, the number of injuries sustained during the study’s time period was small. According to the Austin Transportation Department, about 940,000 scooter rides were taken in Austin during the 90 days of the study that included both weekends of the Austin City Limits festival. That makes the resulting injuries-to-rides ratio 20:100,000.

“I was shocked it was so low, quite frankly,” said Commissioner Rebecca Gonzales.

Zane cautioned the commissioners that the study only took into account incidences that were reported to EMS or the city’s nine area hospitals. That means there was no documentation of injuries from walk-in clinics or personal physicians. Nor were any incidences that were not reported recorded.

Although the data is preliminary and comes from a limited data set, commissioners applauded the efforts of the city’s public health department. Several of the commissioners asked for future follow-up data to track how injury statistics progress as the city’s population grows and the scooters become a more familiar mode of transport. In light of the predominant demographic of 18- to 29-year-olds who favor this transportation option, Chair Ed Scruggs noted that “these are typically folks that do not have the best health insurance,” and the result may be that “the ripple effects later on in their life are very high.”

In an effort to regulate the scooters and reduce accidents and injuries, the Texas Legislature and City Council are both discussing regulations.

Last week, the Texas Senate passed Senate Bill 549, which would prohibit dockless electric scooter use on sidewalks as well as establish stricter parking restrictions and require that scooter users be at least 16 years old.

Austin City Council is considering similar legislation this month. While under the new city ordinances double riding and obstructive parking will be prohibited, riding on the sidewalk will not be.

“We removed the blocks where riding is prohibited right now,” said Redfern. The idea is that transportation engineers will study sidewalk interactions in order to determine the best way to alleviate congestion. Several ideas Redfern mentioned included striping sidewalks, limiting speeds in certain areas or possibly requiring riders to dismount.

One thing the city will not legislate, however, is whether drinking and scooting is illegal. According to the study, 29 percent of those who were injured while riding the scooters admitted to drinking within 12 hours of riding.

Jason JonMichael, the assistant director of the Smart Mobility Program, said, “It should be left to law (enforcement) to make a determination on the legality on that.”

Commissioners Rebecca Webber and Chris Harris were absent from the discussion.

Photo by Tim Evanson made available through a Creative Commons license.

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