When rental electric scooters recently appeared in droves on city streets, they quickly drew both excitement and ire — with some people finding the newfound vehicles a convenient way to get around, while others found them, well, annoying.
But whether you love or hate electric scooters, they appear to be talking a toll on public health.
Data from the first official study on electric scooter injuries is in, and the results are not great: The scooters are tied to numerous types of injuries, including fractures, head injuries and dislocated joints.
The study examined injuries at two emergency rooms (ERs) in the Los Angeles area, the first spot where the now-trendy rental electric scooters became available. The results showed that in just a one-year period, nearly 250 people were treated at the two ERs for injuries tied to electric scooter use. That's similar to the number of injuries tied to bicycle use (around 200 injuries) seen at the two ERs over the same period.
The study, published today (Jan. 25) in the journal JAMA Network Open, provides some concrete numbers on what has, up until now, been a collection of anecdotal reports of people being injured in connection with electric scooters.
Senior author of the study Dr. Joann Elmore, a professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)'s David Geffen School of Medicine, said she thinks that electric scooter riders are "underestimating the hazards" of these vehicles. But that doesn't mean that users should kick these vehicles to the curb. (Really, don't do that.)
Rather, Elmore said the scooters are a fun and inexpensive way to get around, but she encourages riders to be careful, follow local traffic laws and wear helmets "to prevent the types of injures we've seen in our emergency departments."
Not following rules
Over the past year, rental electric scooters from companies including Bird and Lime have popped up seemingly overnight in cities around the country. The scooters are unlocked with an app, don't require docking and reach speeds of up to 15 mph (24 km/h).
Local laws for the use of e-scooters vary, with most cities prohibiting riding on sidewalks. E-scooter companies generally recommend that riders be at least 18 years old and wear helmets, although users seem to often disregard these guidelines.
Indeed, Elmore has seen a number of "violations" of electric-scooter rules, including use of the scooters by young kids and use of one scooter by two people. She's even seen a woman ride a scooter while holding a baby. [9 Weird Ways Kids Can Get Hurt]
"I truly was wondering what percentage [of riders were] following the rules and regulations," Elmore said
For the study, the researchers analyzed medical records for ER patients treated at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, and Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, from Sept. 1, 2017, to Aug. 31, 2018. (Santa Monica, California, was the city where Bird scooters debuted, making it one of the only places with a year's worth of data to analyze.)
Among the study findings:
- Of the 249 patients with injuries linked to electric scooters, most patients (91 percent) were injured as riders, while about 8 percent were nonriders, such as pedestrians.
- About 11 percent of patients were under age 18.
- About 80 percent of scooter-rider patients were injured by falls, 11 percent were injured by a collision with an object, and 9 percent were injured by a moving vehicle or object.
- Some of the most common injuries seen were head injuries (40 percent of patients); fractures (32 percent); and cuts, sprains or bruises without a fracture (28 percent).
- Most patients (94 percent) had relatively minor injuries and were sent home after visiting the ER, but 15 patients (6 percent) had injuries that were severe enough to require admission to the hospital.
In a second part of the study, the researchers observed electric scooter riders at certain public intersections in the community over a 7-hour period. Of the 193 riders who were observed, only 6 percent wore a helmet.
The researchers noted that their results likely underestimate the number of e-scooter injuries seen at the hospitals studied, in part because the researchers included only ER visits and not visits to primary-care or urgent-care doctors. In addition, the study looked back at patients' records after the fact, so the data in the study was limited to what was included in these records. Future studies should gather data going forward in time and ask patients specific questions about their electric scooter use, including whether they were wearing a helmet, Elmore told Live Science.
In a statement provided to Live Science regarding the study, Steely White, director of safety policy and advocacy at Bird, said that the study did not take into account the "sheer number of e-scooter trips taken" during the study period. In addition, the report does not show how e-scooter injuries compare to car and motorcycle injuries, White said.
Still, White said that Bird was committed to rider and community safety, and added that the company hopes "to have the opportunity to work with the report's authors so that we can have a productive and collaborative conversation that focuses on proven preventative measures and education."
In a separate statement provided to Live Science, Lime said that "the safety of our riders and the community is our number one priority." The company noted that it had invested more than $3 million in a campaign to educate riders about safety and the responsibility of riding and had provided 250,000 helmets to riders around the world.
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Originally published on Live Science.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.