One silver lining in the Covid-19 cloud is the sudden scarcity of electric scooters on the UCLA campus and surrounding areas, both in stationary jumbles and in erratic motion. Since the students are gone, Lime, Lyft, and Bird have quarantined their scooters, which has freed the sidewalks for … well … walking.

In September, 2017, standing electric scooters popped up first in nearby Santa Monica and quickly spread to more than 100 cities around the world. Six months after introduction, Bird announced the completion of its one millionth ride. In most instances, the scooters just popped up overnight without any go-ahead from local governments or announcements from the start-ups.

The mantra for many venture-capital endeavors is, “Move fast and break things.” In other words, introduce a disruptive technology, and after it has gained some mass appeal, ask for forgiveness for any legal overreach rather than bog down the launch by seeking pre-approval. Uber is such an example.

For electric scooters, however, “move fast and break things” has a literal meaning as well, the “things” being bones. Investigators recently reported the first year’s experience in emergency rooms for the two main hospitals in the UCLA system.* They first excluded injuries when a scooter was used as a weapon and incidences involving attempted scooter theft. (What a humdrum life the rest of us lead.)

When I took this photo, I did not appreciate the irony: scooters, bus, hospital.

Of the 249 remaining injuries, nearly 60% involved men. The average age for the fallen was 34 years, (range 8-89, yes 89—nothing humdrum there), and 11% of injuries were in patients younger than 18, the minimum age to e-scoot. Ninety-two percent of the patients were riders, the others either stumbled over a scooter, were struck by one, or were injured while lifting or carrying one. I am not sure why somebody would want to carry one, but maybe it was because the five percent of the patients reported to have been drinking got mixed up. Only 4% of patients were known to be wearing a helmet.

Forty-two percent of patients experienced either a fracture or dislocation. Wrist fractures were the most common, but other portions of the limbs along with the face and spine were also represented. Forty percent sustained head injuries. Fortunately, all but two were minor. Unfortunately, two were not. Lacerations, scrapes, bruises, and internal injuries to the chest or abdomen also took their toll.

To put these 249 injuries into perspective, during the same time period, these two emergency rooms treated 181 pedestrian and 195 bicycle injuries, although these activities are intuitively far more common than e-scooting.  

So when the pandemic has passed, electric scooters will undoubtedly spring up again as a popular and convenient conveyance as well as a modern way to break bones and knock heads. Several safety innovations are under consideration. One would be to geofence areas of high pedestrian traffic where an electronic signal would incapacitate encroaching scooters. Another would be to provide a helmet and disposable liners with each vehicle. Nothing has been said yet about sobriety or common-sense testing prior to launch. Before the lockdown, two people riding together were common sightings. The most unsettling one for me, however, was the sight of a man with a two-year-old on his shoulders and another slightly older child riding in front of him. Not a helmet in sight. Surely the “adult” could not have been the kids’ father. Maybe contacting Covid-19 is inevitable, but avoidance of contacting the pavement begins with exercising. Exercising common sense. Stay safe.

*JAMA Network Open. 2019:2(1)e187381.

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