A serious crash involving a woman on a motorized Lime stand-up scooter Sunday night on South Congress Avenue has put a new spotlight on issues that Austin and other cities hosting the scooters have started to struggle with, including how safe the rides are, where the scooters are allowed and liability after crashes.
Scooters began popping up in Austin in early April before the city could approve them. Austin tweaked city rules to impose a $200 fine if the scooters are left on a city right-of-way, and companies now must apply for a permit to operate the scooters here. The city is now home to 2,000 rental bikes and scooters with city permits, with at least four companies in the area.
What should have been a pleasant ride on the Lime scooter down South Congress Avenue on Sunday night turned into a nightmare for the woman who struck a curb and slammed head-first into the pavement. A witness said that, as bystanders waited for help to arrive, the woman became unresponsive and began foaming at the mouth, her eyes rolling back as she laid on the ground.
“It was quite horrible,” said RunLab CEO Kimberly Davis, who witnessed the fall. “She hit the curb with her little scooter and then it stops, so her body kept flying forward over the front.”
Medics took the woman to Dell Seton Medical Center with critical injuries.
Head injuries and bloody knees have been reported from scooter riders across the country, and another scooter app, Bird, which operates in three Texas cities, told The New York Times last week it is forming a safety advisory council led by David Strickland, a former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrator.
Those downloading the Bird app, for instance, consent to a user agreement by entering an email address and pressing “ride,” and can swipe through a “how to ride” tutorial that tells the rider to bring their own helmet, how to start the scooter, how to ride it and where to ride it in town. A helmet will be sent to riders who request one from Bird after their first ride, but riders pay for shipping, according to the app.
The Lime app works largely the same way. Users give their phone number and, in doing so, consent to the user agreement. A rider, who pays $1 to start and 15 cents per minute of use, can read about how to work the scooter, and where to ride and park it. Lime states a user is required to wear a helmet while riding the scooter. Riders in California, which has a mandatory helmet law, can pick up a helmet through the app if they have a $10 Lime balance.
Although Texas has more relaxed helmet rules, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services officials warned against riding without a helmet on the stand-up scooters.
“Injury types and injury severity, I imagine, would be less if people were required to or were wearing a helmet,” EMS Capt. Darren Noak said.
But if a rider is injured while riding a rental scooter, the company is usually not liable, said attorney Jack Zinda, a partner at Zinda Law in Austin. Riders take full responsibility for what happens on the scooter when they agree to the app’s user agreement, Zinda said.
“I think if the agreements were more clear and more upfront about what’s the consequences if you get hurt, that would make it a more just situation,” Zinda said, adding that city officials could do more to regulate scooters with ordinances to make them safer.
Zinda suggested requiring proper training before riding the scooters; many hop on the rentals with little or no experience.
“I think most people assume these are safer than riding a car or riding a bike, even when they’re not. It’s a motorized vehicle,” Zinda said. “The scooter companies are putting these out into the community knowing that lots of inexperienced riders are going to be using them.”
The woman injured Sunday in South Austin was on a Lime scooter without a helmet, said Davis, the crash witness.
Zinda said the woman has almost no options to hold the company accountable for the crash, because she likely agreed by using the app that she was an experienced rider who knew the rules and laws for using the scooter.
Lime spokeswoman Mary Caroline Pruitt said the company, which has 750 city-approved scooter permits here, is looking into the incident.
“Safety is our number one priority, and Lime urges riders to always put the safety of others and themselves before anything else when operating any of our vehicles. We instruct riders to practice safe riding using helmets both through notices on the app and on the actual scooter,” Pruitt said in an emailed statement. “In order to unlock a Lime scooter for the first time, all riders must go through an in-app tutorial that includes helmet safety. We are constantly developing and implementing tools in the app to further promote safe riding and scooter use.”
The city requires all dockless companies in the city to share crash data monthly, and the first reports are due in less than two weeks, city transportation spokeswoman Marissa Monroy said. Officials hope to make that data available to the public by the end of the month.
Austin officials also are working to gauge citywide public opinion on dockless rental bikes and scooters and are urging Austinites to take a survey on the topic. The public can visit the Dockless Mobility Survey online at bit.ly/docklessatxsurvey through Aug. 31.
At an Austin Pedestrian Advisory Council meeting Monday evening, city employees and citizens alike acknowledged that no one simple solution can improve safety for those on scooters and those around them.
“Generally speaking, with the introduction of dockless (bikes and scooters), I think folks are trying to do the right thing, and they might be a little confused how to do it,” said Laura Dierenfield with the Austin Transportation Department. “That’s where education and getting the word out is important.”
Some people at the meeting stressed that education alone isn’t enough. Some said police should ticket, or at least call out, rule-breakers; others said that many of the issues with scooters highlight existing flaws in the city’s pedestrian and bike infrastructure.
Dana Meyer, who lives downtown, said scooter riders on sidewalks are creating a dangerous environment on Second Street.
“There are moms with a stroller and a dog on a leash that almost get clipped all the time. … It’s just a lot of traffic on the sidewalk with a lot of people walking,” Meyer said. “And let’s face it – half the people are on their phones, and everyone’s not always paying attention. They walk out of a shop, and all the sudden someone on a scooter comes flying by.”
People using scooters are encouraged to use designated bike lanes or streets if the speed limit for that road is less than 35 mph. Part of the problem, some advisory council members said, is that some scooter users might not feel comfortable — or welcome — on the street.
Austin’s infrastructure, even downtown, “isn’t designed for people; it’s designed for cars,” and that ought to change, advisory council member Katie Deolloz said.
“Streets downtown should be designed for people first,” advisory council member Jay Blazek Crossley said.