There's a physiological reason for e-scooter injuries, scientists assert

Turns out we actually suck at riding them, and we're hurting ourselves as a result.

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This is the year of the e-scooter. Across the United States, motorized scooters have surged in popularity, offering a cheap, low-effort, and speedy method of traversing town. But as the e-scooters proliferate, so have the injuries sustained while riding them.

The findings were presented Monday at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

The reason for the uptick reveals an unfortunate truth: Humans just aren’t very good at riding e-scooters. We can’t handle the speed and we can’t stay on the scooter when we hit a bump or swerve. To top it off, most riders don’t wear helmets or follow the rules of the road.

“E-scooters have a narrow platform, can travel up to 15 to 20 miles per hour and require a level of coordination and skill that is often not native to many users,” Aiza Ashraf, co-author of the study and resident at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, said in a statement.

Why are we so bad at riding e-scooters?

Whether scooters are a dangerous millennial trend or a fun, easy way to reduce car traffic is open to interpretation. But either way, what is clear is that riders aren’t very good at riding them.

E-scooters fly down bike lanes and weave through traffic much like bicycles and motorcycles, but they place unique demands on the rider.

“Rather than exerting themselves to adjust speed, e-scooter users have to learn how to speed and brake while balancing themselves on a narrow standing platform,” study co-author Mohsin Mukhtar tells Inverse. “This can make it more difficult for users to adjust the speed appropriately.”

The way you balance on an e-scooter is different than how you sit on a bicycle or motorcycle, Carol Cotton, a researcher at the University of Georgia said.

Scooters have a narrow platform and that can make balancing a challenge.

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Eighty percent of motorized scooter injuries occur when riders fall off the scooter after hitting a bump or ricocheting off the sidewalk — not from colliding with a vehicle or object, according to a study published earlier this year.

People don’t have the core strength or balance to stay upright on e-scooters, especially older riders who might be out of practice riding anything, the results suggest. Time to put the training wheels back on, Dad.

Another factor is size: like bicycles, e-scooters tend to be small enough to be nearly invisible sometimes to drivers in cars or buses, but may be harder to control at faster speeds, Cotton explains. They have smaller wheels than motorcycles or Vespa-style scooters, making them less stable on the road. E-scooters may be more susceptible to reacting to debris, potholes or bumps.

Training failures

Indeed, training may be key, too. To hit the road, e-scooter-users typically pay a dollar and a minute-rate of 15 cents to rent the scooter. And that’s it. They aren’t required to complete any training. About sixty percent of riders watch a video training on their smartphone app before taking off. But the tutorial isn’t doing enough to keep them safe on the streets.

One in three riders will get injured in their first ride, a 2019 study found. As many as 63 percent of e-scooter accidents involved people with less than nine rides under their belt.

Over a third of people in this study cited e-scooter speeds as the reason for their crash. While bikes average about 10-12 miles per hour with effort, motorized scooters reach speeds up to 20 mph with minimal effort.

“Limiting e-scooter speed could reduce the overall incidence and severity of injuries in the event of a fall or collision,” Ashraf said.

To make matters worse, e-scooter riders don’t always follow the rules of the road, law enforcement experts say. A Consumer Reports survey found one in four riders were uncertain about which traffic laws they should follow.

“Since these e-scooters could be viewed as a potential public health hazard, we would recommend public education on the use of these devices,” Ashraf said.

In contrast, motorcycle riders have to take advanced training courses to get their license, and tend to be very safe drivers, Police Chief Jimmy Williamson at the University of Georgia said.

“You would never see a motorcycle rider doing some of the things we see people do on scooters,” Williamson said — things like zig-zagging in the roadway, wearing flip-flops and shorts, which don’t offer much protection, or even driving on sidewalks.

E-scooter riders should be required to complete an online “rider’s test,” or watch a video to unlock the ability to rent e-scooters, the data suggest.

How serious are scooter injuries?

E-scooter injuries can go beyond a skinned knee or bruised hip. A study of almost 200 injured riders published earlier this year found that half of riders experienced severe injuries, including bone fractures, ligament tears, bleeding, head injuries, and even traumatic brain injuries.

The latest work describes similar results. The researchers studied electronic medical records and radiology archives of adults who had exams for scooter-related injuries over a five-year period. They identified 69 exams performed on 36 individuals.

More than half of people who received x-rays or CT scans after e-scooter accidents had injuries like fractures and soft-tissue injuries. The most commonly hurt areas were the upper extremities, the data show.

E-scooters require minimal effort compared to bicycles, and reach relatively high speeds. 

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It’s hard to compare e-scooter injuries to injuries involving bikes, motorcycles, or other vehicles. Some think any scooter-inspired panic is unfounded —motorized scooters are overwhelmingly safe and the risks are overblown, they argue.

One major accident-causing behavior that has nothing to do with the scooter itself? People drink and ride, often at night. In one study, one third of riders reported drinking before riding while half of injured riders claimed poor road conditions as reasons for accidents. Drinking delays riders’ reaction time to hazards. In the dark, it may also be harder to detect a pothole or swerve away from a drifting car.

Even though e-scooter accidents are sending riders to emergency rooms, almost no one wears helmets while riding. Making helmets mandatory or providing helmets along with e-scooters would improve safety and protect people from potentially traumatic brain injuries when they go flying over the handlebars.

Cities like Nashville have taken an all-or-nothing approach, banning the scooters from the streets. Short of that, experts suggest wearing safety gear (helmets and elbow pads), staying sober while riding, getting educated on the rules of the road, and taking some practice spins in low-traffic areas to prepare for a ride.

Basically: E-scooters may look like your childhood scooter, but they aren’t toys. Treat them as such — or you might end up eating the dust, too.

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