If you’re in a city where motorized rideshare scooters like Bird and Lime are available, you may have seen people zipping past, helmet-free, and wondered, “Isn’t someone gonna get hurt?” Well, according to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, yes.
UCLA researchers looked at visits to the emergency rooms at two Los Angeles–area hospitals and found that 249 people were admitted with injuries over a year. Only 10 of those injured were documented as wearing a helmet at the time. “None of the companies that rent these vehicles in the increasingly common hubless system provide helmets,” wrote Dr. Frederick Rivara, who has researched injury control, in an accompanying commentary. And, “There are no data on whether bicycle helmets would provide adequate protection against serious [traumatic brain injury] for these motorized devices, which can attain higher speeds than would be achieved by most bicyclists on flat roads.”
“I don’t know if I have a position on the scooter themselves; there’s good and bad as far as technology,” said Dr. Tarak Trivedi, lead author of the study and emergency room physician at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. “But we need to be aware there’s a public health impact.”
In August, BuzzFeed News reported that medical professionals were still unable to quantify how many people were getting injured on e-scooters rolling out across the country as there were no official studies about public safety or injuries, and the coding system that ERs use has no code for motorized scooter accidents. Still, medical staff in Santa Monica and San Francisco told BuzzFeed News people were coming in with broken teeth, wrists, and other injuries from the scooters. A personal injury lawyer in Santa Monica set up a page on her website for scooter victims.
The new study, which ran from August 2017 to September 2018 at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and the UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, is the first to examine scooter injuries. A few key findings:
249 people came to the ER with scooter injuries, most commonly fractures or head injuries. For scale, a staffer at one of the UCLA hospitals estimated the two ERs combined get about 100,000 patients per year.
92% of those were riders; 8% were nonriders (pedestrians, tripped over a parked scooter, hurt themselves lifting a parked scooter).
11% were under 18 years old.
Only 10 riders were documented as wearing a helmet.
12 patients were drunk when the accident happened.
Mary Caroline Pruitt, a representative for Lime said in a statement, “Lime supports the AMA’s recommendations to further innovate helmet designs and for the industry to continue focusing on safety … We look forward to working with the industry, medical community and regulators to create a meaningful ecosystem for this new and evolving technology.”
Meanwhile, Paul Steely White, director of public safety and advocacy at Bird, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that the study “fails to take into account the sheer number of e-scooter trips taken” and that the reported injuries are a fraction of 1% of the total number of e-scooter rides. He added that it doesn’t put the number of e-scooter injuries into the context of more common motorcycle and automobile accidents.
Santa Monica, where one of the UCLA hospitals is located, is the headquarters of Bird and the first city where e-scooters rolled out. The popular beach boardwalk, which is a pedestrian- and bike-only zone, was a perfect spot for the new fleet. The city was also the site of a protest by pro-scooter riders, whose participation Bird and Lime was encouraged via in-app messages. A bill was passed in California, backed by scooter companies, that removed helmet requirements, making helmets optional for riders over 18 years old.
Dr. Wally Ghurabi, medical director of the Nethercutt Emergency Center at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, has had a front-row seat to scooter accidents. He said he feels vindicated that the study confirms the occurrence of injuries. “Their conclusions are pretty much right on,” Ghurabi said.
A previous version of this post misstated Mary Caroline Pruitt's name.