News & Insights

E-Riding (or “Micromobility”) Safety


June 2, 2023

By: M. Barkley Horn

It’s hard to spend a nice day on the National Mall without a “near-miss” collision with an e-bike or e-scooter.  As someone who enjoys running or walking on the Mall, I have had this experience many times in the past couple of years as e-bikes and e-scooters have flooded the capital.


E-bikes and e-scooters have become increasingly popular over the past few years as alternative modes of transportation, especially in urban areas where traffic congestion is a significant issue.  These “fun,” convenient,  and now easily accessible rides frequently serve as “last mile” transportation for city commuters to home, work, or social outings.  In Wshutterstock-1154465734ashington, D.C.,

e-bikes and e-scooters are frequently used by tourists who may not be accustomed to walking long distances on foot (especially along the 2.5-mile-long National Mall) or who want the unique experience of riding outdoors past historic buildings, memorials, and monuments.

This transportation innovation has been favorably referred to as “micromobility,” highlighting its convenience and novelty.  I’ll call it “e-riding.”

According to the New Yorker magazine, e-bikes are the top-selling electric vehicle in the United States, surpassing even electric cars by a significant amount.  In addition to e-bike ownership,

e-riding has become more popular as bike-share companies have started to offer rentable e-bikes available on the spur of the moment, as they line the streets and trails of major cities.  In D.C.,  approximately 3,700 dockless e-bikes are available for rent through companies such as Lime, Spin, and Veo.  There is no data as to the number of e-bikes available for rent in the entire D.C. Metro area.  From anecdotal experience, e-bikes are readily available in many of D.C.’s surrounding neighborhoods.  As to e-scooters, there are currently over 8,000 for use in D.C.  And rumor has it that more are on the horizon.

While e-riding may be a convenient and eco-friendly way to get around, these devices also present potential dangers that riders should understand before hopping on for a ride.


Collision Risk

E-riding presents a collision risk because e-bikes and e-scooters are often used by inexperienced and unprepared operators on roads or pathways alongside cars, other types of vehicles, or pedestrians.  There are no designated paths or traffic lights for e-riding, putting the burden on the e-rider to understand her duties as an operator of a unique device sharing the roadway.  It can be difficult for e-riders, especially in unfamiliar environments, to control the device (which accelerates at an unfamiliar pace), pay attention to their surroundings, and understand the traffic laws that may apply to e-riding.

In D.C., most e-riding injuries involving electric scooters occur on sidewalks, where an inexperienced e-rider may feel safer, but pedestrians are at risk of being hit and injured.

This is true even though it is illegal to ride on the sidewalk inside D.C.’s central business district (“CBD”).

While more e-riding injuries may occur on sidewalks, the most severe injuries to scooter riders occur where the rider is sharing a roadway with vehicles.  Even if an e-rider is especially careful, drivers of vehicles often have a hard time seeing e-devices’ small profiles among all the other traffic in a busy area.  In 2018, a 20-year-old was struck and killed by an SUV while riding his e‑scooter in Dupont Circle.  The man was pinned under the vehicle and dragged 20 yards.  More recently, in the fall of 2022, a truck hit a scooter rider in Northwest D.C.  The truck driver fled the scene. 

E-bikes may also present a risk of more serious collisions than traditional bikes due to their fast speeds, reaching up to 28 miles per hour for some models.  Additionally, riders who decide to ride a rentable e-bike are often not equipped with the proper safety equipment, such as a helmet, or the knowledge of how to proceed alongside vehicular traffic.  These factors increase the rider’s risk of serious injury, such as a traumatic brain injury, or death.  

While D.C.’s growing network of bike lanes makes for safer e-riding along roadways and keeps e-riders off sidewalks,  these lanes are not always available or utilized.  And even when they are, the unique risks of micromobility – inexperienced riders, lack of proper safety equipment, and the likelihood of distraction  –  still exist.  


Inexperienced or Under-the-Influence Operation

While the likelihood of inexperienced e-riding is uniquely high, those renting e-bikes or

e-scooters also tend to be less sober than others on the roadway.  These e-devices are available in a moment’s decision, along the streets and sidewalks of D.C. bar districts and entertainment venues.  While under the influence, biking or scootering may seem like a fun and inexpensive way to get to the next location, especially compared to the well-known dangers of operating a motor vehicle or the frustration of calling a rideshare service in a crowded area.

But the reality is that non-sober e-riding (whether by bike or scooter) is both dangerous and illegal in D.C.

According to a California study on electric scooter injuries, nearly half of the studied riders admitted to trauma centers for injuries were riding under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  There is no need to recount the loss in coordination, attention, and reaction time that occurs when someone is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  Combine this with a rider’s lack of familiarity with the equipment and/or the area, and the risk of intoxicated e-riding is overwhelmingly clear.  


Lack of Helmet

As discussed above, those who decide to hop aboard a rented e-bike or e-scooter often do not wear a helmet while riding.  Most rentable e-bikes or e-scooter do not include a helmet, so it is up to the rider to prepare in advance and secure one if she wants to ride safely.  But most people choosing micromobility for its ease of commuting short distances are not likely to drag along a helmet on their outings.  This leads to a situation where many e-riders, especially those renting

e-devices, are at a greater risk of serious injury, particularly to the head.

Even though these e-bikes and e-scooters do not come with a helmet, helmets are required by law in Washington D.C. for bicycle and scooter riders under 16 years of age.  In Virginia, state law does not require e-riders riders to wear a helmet, but a county, city, or town can pass a local ordinance requiring those 14 years old and younger to wear a helmet while riding any bicycle ore-device.  In Fairfax County, bicycle riders younger than 15 are required to wear helmets.  Those 14 years old and younger are not even allowed to operate e-bikes or e-scooters, without immediate adult supervision, in Virginia.  As to electric scooters, Fairfax County has no helmet requirement for those who can lawfully ride.


Mechanical Problems

Because many e-devices are shared devices that pass between multiple riders a day, these devices experience wear-and-tear and other mechanical or electrical problems that are not always obvious to a first-time rider.  Chief among these are frame or structural failures, braking issues, and fires resulting from battery problems.

It takes riders time to get accustomed to the sensitivity of the brakes and acceleration on

e-devices.  Time that many hurried e-riders are not keen to take before heading to their next destination.  If something is wrong with the brakes or acceleration on a device, a rider may not notice until it is too late.

While a one-off rider may not be equipped to evaluate any battery defect on a rentable e-bike or scooter, taking a test ride and remaining aware throughout a ride may help prevent injuries in the case of a defective battery.


Safety Measures for E-Riding  

With a better understanding of the risks and laws that apply to e-riding, riders should take precautions to help ensure their safety and compliance with state and local laws.

If you are apt to e-ride, I recommend you:

  • Always wear a helmet, even if it is inconvenient or means you cannot ride as spontaneously as you wish.
  • Inspect any e-device before you hop on.  Take the device for a test ride to adjust to its acceleration and braking, and to ensure all parts are intact.
  • Practice first.  Don’t try e-riding for the first time when you are in a hurry or need to be somewhere at a particular time. 
  • Understand where you are going, and your plan for getting there, before you begin your trip.  Do not try to rely on your phone for directions while you are riding.  Additionally, know whether you plan to travel by sidewalk, bike lane, or roadway – and whether your route is legal in the area you are traveling – before you begin your trip.
  • Stay sober and alert.  Take e-riding as seriously as you would driving a motor vehicle, knowing the risks to yourself and others.  Make yourself visible to motor vehicle traffic and pedestrians, and drive predictably.

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