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Salt Lake focuses on safety as e-scooters rack up miles, injuries

SALT LAKE CITY — As rentable electric scooter riders continue to ply the roadways — and sidewalks — of Utah's capital in droves, Salt Lake officials plan to host a series of safety events this week in hopes of keeping riders and pedestrians safe from harm, and each other.

While Bird and Lime, the two companies operating on-demand, rentable electric scooter systems in Salt Lake City keep their operational data confidential (like the number of scooters on the road and total number of rides and riders), a Lime representative told a group of Utah legislators in August that in the company's first 2 ½ weeks of operation, some 10,000 riders took over 30,000 rides while traveling over 40,000 miles.

Perhaps not surprisingly, injuries associated with e-scooter operations are now part of the landscape.

A posting on a University Hospital website last week noted a spike in the number of injured scooter riders' visits to the hospital's emergency care units at both the campus facility and South Jordan clinic.

Noman Khan, a communications officer for the hospital, said data from the same three-month period — June 15 to Sept. 15, 2017 — compared to 2018 saw scooter-related injuries treated by the U.'s E.R. doctors rise from eight in 2017 to 21 in 2018.

While that represents a 162 percent increase, Khan noted the 2017 figures predate the arrival of e-scooters in Salt Lake City earlier this summer.

Dr. Troy Madsen, a University of Utah School of Medicine professor and researcher, told the Deseret News that of those 21 reported injuries, data reflects 15 included patient information that referenced e-scooters or rental scooters. Khan said it is also likely that "a lot more" injuries related to e-scooter riding are being treated at other care facilities outside the U.'s E.R. units.

Madsen said one surprising aspect of the U. data related to e-scooter incidents is the severity of the injuries, over half of which, he noted, "were fractures or dislocations of arms and legs."

Khan did not have data reflecting the volume of E.R. visits at the U. for that time period for injuries related to bicycle riding or skateboarding. State records, however, show that in 2016 (the most recent year for which data is available) there were 655 reported bicycle incidents in Utah, of which 613 resulted in injury. The majority of those, 348, occurred in Salt Lake County, a figure that averages out to about 87 accidents every three months.

Aubrey Ramsey rides an electric scooter in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 1, 2018.
Aubrey Ramsey rides an electric scooter in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 1, 2018.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Dockless companies like Lime and Bird rent scooters and bikes for rides via a smartphone app, and instead of needing to be returned to a designated location, or dock, they can be left wherever users finish their trips. Locating a scooter to rent is also coordinated by the app, which identifies available vehicles with a digital map.

Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall said last week that the council has continued to hear e-scooter-related complaints and safety concerns from residents, but she believes there is a split in sentiment on the new vehicles.

"I think it’s a love it or hate it opinion that people have on this," Mendenhall said. "I go to a lot of community council meetings and I hear … particularly from older people in our community who don’t feel as comfortable hopping on this new technology and they’re completely opposed to it. And then there are people who have tried it out who enjoy it and who are able to give up their cars and the hassles with parking and paying for gas and they’re able to take (e-scooters) on those short trips."

Mendenhall also noted the grievances some residents have with e-scooters are familiar to a long-running refrain city officials have heard about another two-wheeled transportation option.

"These are the same type of complaints we’ve heard for years about cyclists," she said. "There’s been an ongoing request of Salt Lake City to do more education and alternatively, enforcement of riders."

Mendenhall said the riding of e-scooters on sidewalks, which is prohibited by city ordinance in Salt Lake City's downtown area as it is for bicyclists, is the No. 1 issue city officials are grappling with. But, she also noted it's a problem that needs to be addressed as e-scooters appear to be a new, but permanent, part of the city's transportation landscape.

"You put people on a device that is meant for the street, but we’re finding more and more it is ending up on the sidewalk with pedestrians and they’re going about 20 mph and … there are serious safety concerns," Mendenhall said. "But this is a new mode of transportation and it's not going to go away. I think we’re just at the tip of the iceberg of its expansion.

"(We need to) make it easier for these new vehicles to interact with everybody else who is trying to get around the city. It’s going to be some work."

Part of that work includes safety outreach events hosted by the city and both Lime and Bird this week in downtown Salt Lake City. A spokesman for Bird, the first company to launch rentable e-scooters in town, said the company will be giving away helmets and information at the events.

“Safety is very important for Bird, that's why we are committed to partnering with Salt Lake City to ensure that the community and its visitors safely embrace our affordable, environmentally friendly transportation option," a Bird spokesman said. "We look forward to sharing safety resources and free helmets at our event with Mayor (Jackie) Biskupski this week and continuing to work with local leaders.”

Salt Lake City Mayor's Office spokesman Matthew Rojas said those interested in learning more about safe e-scooter operations, and participating in safety gear giveaways, can stop by kiosks on 300 South between 200 East and State Street this Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., and on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Those interested in completing a city survey on e-scooters can visit slcgov.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_3ylDs8MlrWCAFMN.