The ongoing debate as to how safe electric scooters really are, and how ESG investment can help

E-scooters, the newcomers in transport tech innovation, have gained an enormous amount of traction within an incredibly short span of time. Offering both expedience in travel and a solution to transport generated CO2, it’s new a product which ESG investors have been keeping a close eye on as of recent. In 2018 it was found that automobiles accounted for 28% of all CO2 emissions in the US, the largest contributors that year and an alarming statistic which is set to rise. Transport indeed remains one of the more significant factors to consider in the effort to decarbonise, and for many, e-scooters are offering an appealing alternative. They are estimated to be 1,000% more energy efficient than the average gasoline-powered vehicle per mile, and with 49%[1] of trips being taken in place of car journeys, they have clearly perfected a viable substitute in public view. However as these scooters of the future begin to collide with a world which is yet to quite catch up, leading companies such as Bird and Lime have been plagued by reports of rising road accidents, injury and even fatality. Whilst they’ve sparked a global social phenomenon, legalisation is lagging behind as many governments remain dubious in light of the alarming reports. In countries such as the UK and Singapore, these innovative new vehicles precariously exist within a legal grey area, caught between public demand and institutional reluctance.  Whilst policy remains under review, the question still remains: do the environmental benefits of e-scooters really come at the cost of our safety? 

Inherently Unsafe?

As TV presenter Emily Hartridge became the first UK recorded e-scooter death earlier this year, opposition to the new mode of transport has been on the rise. In fact, the UK Parliament has outwardly declared the scooters “inherently unsafe” due to several of their manufacturing features which they see unfit for road use. Though there has been push-back from supporters, Parliament’s concerns are not unfounded, as some of the engineering aspects which they’ve found fault with reoccur across several reports. Specifically, factors like wheels size, lack of visibility, and standing position have all been identified by a number of sources as safety hazards and linked back to the rise of e-scooter related accidents. Their fast declining reputation for health and safety is not only cause for concern with prospective riders, but could also lead to a significant financial hit for the industry. Public branding is integral in attracting investors for any business, and the growing media storm of ‘unsafe e-scooters’ will undoubtedly have implications. With future funders being presented with news stories of injury and death, this will no doubt discourage investment to a degree and see a loss of capital for the companies. 

Wheel Size   

The e-scooter’s significantly smaller than average wheels size compared to bicycles has particularly aroused concerns among experts. The average e-scooter wheel size ranges from eight to ten inches, however, according to a recent study carried out by British e-scooter manufacturers Swifty Scooters, it’s a size which falls severely short of basic safety standards.  Comparing an average eight-inch wheel, to that of a 16 inch (the smallest wheel size commercially installed in bicycles), the latter fared better in terms of handling and control, stability, and trajectory after impact when coming into contact with uneven surfaces. This is something which has certainly not surpassed UK Parliament despite lobbying efforts for legalisation, as they stated in a recent report that riders are at “greater risk when driving over uneven road surfaces, potholes or drain covers” due to the scooters’ insufficiently sized wheels. With the UK one of the last nations to legalise the vehicles for public use, e-scooters’ green credentials are at present being overshadowed by hard evidence laying ground for real safety concerns.

Standing Position

Another safety issue which has been frequently cited is the required standing position of the e-scooters. According to Fleet Europe, it’s a stance which vastly increases the risk of severe head injury as riders are more likely to be thrown forwards with greater force in the event of collision than they would be sitting down. It’s a risk which is said by the Danish Transport Authority to be eight times higher for e-scooter riders than cyclists, a concerning claim backed up by several sources. One of which is JAMA Network Open who in a 2019 study found that out of 249 patients treated for e-scooter related accidents, 40% were head injuries. As explained by Duncan Stewart (Director of Research at University of British Columbia) “Falling from a standing scooter is just like tripping for a pedestrian…but at 24 km/h, and while elevated by 15-20 cm”, essentially meaning that the standing position leaves riders vulnerable to a much greater fall and head trauma should they take a wrong turn.   

Risks for Pedestrians

The undeniable injury statistics present a steep compromise for the environmental benefits that the e-scooter companies claim. With well-meaning riders looking to cut CO2 out of the commute, their proven dangers are significantly impeding on their ESG potential for would-be investors. However, it’s not only riders who are at risk; pedestrians are also suffering the consequences of rogue e-scooter rides and being hospitalised in collisions. In a recent case study it was reported that out of 249 patients admitted into the emergency department after an e-scooter accident, 8.4% of these were pedestrians. 

The report presents a particular concern for those living with disabilities, namely the visually impaired. The RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) publically shared their concerns stating:

“E-scooters are dangerous for blind and partially sighted people as they are hard to hear and capable of reaching high speeds. The rise of silent vehicles such as e-scooter is making it harder for people with sight loss to make independent journeys on foot as they are no longer able to rely on sound to detect these vehicles.”

Investment

Evidently, many of these collisions are occurring as a result of e-scooters and pedestrians sharing the sidewalk, and travelling at two very different speeds. With only a handful of cities having installed specialist cycling lanes, it’s an area for investment which has been proposed as a solution by many. Though the UK government have been particularly vocal about their opposition to the scooters, their plans to invest £250 million into cycle lanes may see the controversial new vehicles trialled for potential legalisation. 

Whilst specialist lanes may present a diligent ESG investment option for the inevitable future growth of e-scooters, they still stand accused in the eyes of many of being inherently hazardous, and thus investment into new prototypes and engineering upgrades may be an additional area worth considering. However, not everyone maintains this view as some consider their unfortunate reputation as a hazard-on-wheels to be down simply to a lack of education. According to the ITF (International Transport Forum), “a road fatality is not significantly more likely when using a shared standing e-scooter”, and proposed that learning to properly navigate the scooters amongst urban traffic could help improve safety.

Lime’s Respect the Ride

Education and awareness is something which Lime, one of the larger e-scooter companies, has also taken into consideration in one of their more recent developments. Their prospective safety awareness campaign Respect the Ride is set to launch with a $3 million investment behind it and aims to “empower people across the world to ride responsibly”. Respect the Ride plans to branch out in a number of ways to promote safety, including an advertising campaign reminding riders of safety essentials, an ambassador programme educating local communities and international safety summits. As well this they plan to address the need for infrastructure (including the previously proposed bike lanes) with local officials and build new models with bigger wheels in an attempt to better safety standards at a base engineering level.     

Riding into the future

Whether you’re a sceptic or supporter, e-scooters show no sign of slowing down and are fast driving into a future of electrically powered transport. Their convenience and efficiency for modern living as well as promising green potential has seen their popularity soar and they’re fast becoming a staple of contemporary urban life. Whilst understandable safety concerns still leave these modern innovations somewhat tainted, ESG investment into better safety practise may well be the way forwards to harness their environmental benefits and develop an action plan for safe public use. With well thought out funding into the scooters at all levels, engineering, education and infrastructure, we can perhaps safely ride into a greener, decarbonised future of progressive transport technology.    


[1] 49% of e-scooter trips were taken in place of car journeys in Santa Monica according to the Shared Mobility Pilot Program Summary Report (City of Santa Monica, Nov, 2019).

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