On January 6, 2020, at the intersection of North Oak Street and Wilson Boulevard in Rosslyn, a 23-year-old man ran a traffic signal right into the path of a 10-ton Arlington County school bus going 25 miles per hour. He was hit and thrown 15 feet into the middle of the road. The Arlington resident was transferred to George Washington University Hospital with symptoms of a concussion.
The man wasn’t driving a car, or even riding a bike. He was driving an e-scooter.
The rise of the e-scooter as a new form of easy, shareable transportation has gotten a lot of buzz in recent years. Referred to as a “micro mobility” option, the lightweight scooters are generally a good way to get around for short trips, especially in places like Rosslyn—the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor accounts for 60 percent of e-scooter trips in the Northern Virginia region—and other densely populated urban areas, while also helping to reduce traffic congestion, free up parking and reduce pollution. That’s why county transportation officials have embraced them—and are cautiously optimistic about their future in the region.
When e-scooters began appearing in the Northern Virginia area around 2017, impact studies were undertaken in Arlington and Alexandria. A nine-month pilot program was started in Arlington County in October 2018 and then extended into December 2019.
But even as the pilot program was underway, there were 69 e-scooter crashes in Arlington.
Hearings were conducted; rules were made, and then adjusted as more people riding more e-scooters created more issues that needed to be addressed.
In Arlington, the number of available rental scooters was ultimately capped at 2,000. Top speed was capped at 15 mph in bike lanes. Five of nine scooter operators hoping to come to Arlington were denied permits, leaving e-scooter companies Bird (which was the brand of scooter the Arlington man was using) and Lime as the leading scooter rental options.
As these safety issues come up, the question also arises: Do the costs outweigh the benefits?
In DC, there is the Lime rider at Dupont Circle, the first—and, so far, only—recorded death of a scooter driver in the region. On Sept. 21, 2018, Carlos Sanchez-Martin, 20, was hit by a BMW SUV when he ran a red light on his Lime scooter in the crosswalk. He died at a local hospital.
Or consider the group lawsuit brought by 45 injured scooter riders: a traumatic brain injury and skull fracture in Cincinnati, a broken wrist and dislocated right ankle in San Diego, a broken neck and fractured right arm in Indianapolis. Most of these accidents were caused by e-scooters that suddenly accelerate, suddenly stop or crash because of failed brakes.
One of the accident victims in that lawsuit is Silver Spring, Maryland, resident Evan Sutton. He was riding a Lime scooter in DC that abruptly stopped on its own. He was thrown off, breaking his right kneecap. He underwent two surgeries.
Mike Arias, the founder and managing partner of Arias Sanguinetti Wang and Torrijos in Los Angeles, is handling the group case. “We are challenging the user agreements in these cases,” Arias says. “There are a lot of bad terms in there, like limiting the amounts for recovery, forcing people to arbitration and a lot of things I think are inappropriate and unfair.”
Russell Murphy, a spokesman for Lime, responded, saying, in part: “While we do not comment on ongoing litigation, rider safety is at the forefront of everything we do as a company. It is why we have focused so heavily on developing the safest hardware possible, invested millions into rider education initiatives and work collaboratively with cities to build dedicated protected lanes for riders away from car traffic.”
Henry Dunbar, director of operations for Active Transportation for Arlington County Commuter Services, works on policy issues for scooters. He was a subject matter expert on Arlington’s pilot program. He says that data indicate the vast majority of crashes happen with inexperienced riders. “We ultimately see the use of the scooters as a net positive,” he says.
Instead of initiating a formal rider licensing process, Dunbar says, they would like to take the path of people knowing their abilities. “Right now, it’s a combination of citizen and rider education,” he says.
Bruce Deming, an Arlington attorney who specializes in bike and scooter cases, recalled a case where a 300-pound Arlington man was riding down Wilson in Rosslyn when the brakes on his scooter failed. He jumped off and smacked his head on the street, suffering a concussion.
The suspected cause? He was too heavy for the scooter’s weight limit. The brakes on the device failed under the stress and the steep angle of his descent. “There is some personal responsibility that is going to come into that,” Deming says. “Under Virginia law, that would absolutely be contributory negligence, and he wouldn’t be able to recover a dime.”
Deming says most riders have no liability coverage. He has suggested to Arlington County officials that they consider requiring mandatory insurance that is “baked in” to the rental price so when someone rents a scooter, they are automatically covered with a million-dollar liability coverage to anybody that is hit by the rider.