Electric scooters are legal in almost every country except the UK. The UK never intentionally banned them, it’s just the phrasing of some rules in the 1835 highways act (predating the invention of the car) doesn’t make them legal. The police have apparently started to clamp down on them, and the UK has had it’s first electric scooter rider death and an elderly Parisian lady has started a campaign to have them banned after having her hand injured when one collided with her. However one death is not enough to draw any conclusions from – we need to compare it to how dangerous it is for the rider and for other road users, and compare it to how dangerous it would be if the scooter rider walked, cycled or drove the same journey.
So how dangerous are they? There haven’t been enough on the UK roads to draw any valid conclusions. However, with a bit of basic data science, and a comparison to other countries and similar modes of transport (bicycles) we can get an estimate and do a comparison.
If we focus on London as an urban environment, we can expect scooter riders to have roughly the same level of death and life changing injuries as bikes. Scooters travel at the same speed, weigh the same and offer the same level of protection in a collision as a bike. Some of the scooters have smaller wheels, which make them more vulnerable to potholes and uneven kerbs. However these will cause a fall which is very unlikely to result in death. We can be confident of this because cyclists also fall off going over kerbs and potholes, and of the 84 cyclist deaths in London from 2005-2011, all bar one involved a collision with a vehicle, and the other one involved a collision with a roller-blader.
Electric scooters, and most casual cyclists, are likely to be doing around 15mph, which is about the speed of a 14-year-old chasing a football, and 14 year olds chasing footballs don’t tend to die if they fall over. However the surface is hard and non-lethal injuries will be substantially higher. The pothole risk is high so definitely wear a helmet.
In the US scooters have been around for 18 months, mainly rental ones that you unlock with an app. The take up has been huge, with 40% of the population using them in some cities, and 80% of the population approving of them. US road conditions are not very similar to London however. As at August 2019, there has been around 70 million scooter journeys, with 11 scooter related deaths, so 1 death per 6 million journeys. In 2017 there were about 4 billion cycle journeys and 777 cyclists deaths, so the risk appears slightly higher at 1 death every 5 million journeys. Scooter journeys may be shorter, but roughly the comparison with cycling for rider risk seems valid.
So if I’m happy that the risk to the rider is about the same as a cyclist, why would a bike be legal and a scooter not legal? Well probably because the risk to cyclists is very high. Cyclist Killed or Seriously Injured rates in London are about 600 per billion km ridden. This seems low until we compare it to how many miles a cyclist rides. A commuter going from Chiswick to the City every day rides about 7000km per year, which gives them a 1 in 5 chance of not making it to retirement without being killed or seriously injured. A 14-year-old biking to 2.5 miles each way to school doubles their chance of dying over the next year. That makes cycling more dangerous to them than drugs, suicide, knife crime, all other accidents, childhood cancers and everything else put together. Fortunately, not many people cycle so the death rates seem low. However, if every the tube was as dangerous mile for mile as cycling in London, around 3200 people would be killed or seriously injured every year.
What about the risk to pedestrians from being hit by scooters? Again the data is sparse because scooters are new, but a comparison to bikes is valid. Bikes kill pedestrians on urban roads at roughly 1/100th of the rate per km travelled as cars do. Scooters are likely to be safer – they are more manoeuvrable at low speeds, narrower, and the rider doesn’t have the temptation to maintain their speed so they don’t have to pedal harder to speed up again, however the 1/100th comparison seems valid.
So every journey that the users switches from a car to an electric scooter reduces the chance that they kill a pedestrian by a factor of 100.
Can they users swap cars for scooters? What about the short range and the lack of luggage space? In London 2/3 of their journeys are for shopping or leisure purposes, 2/3 are less than 3 miles, involve no passenger, or have no luggage. So yes they can.