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Should Lime scooters stay or should they go?

A Lime scooter. Photo/Getty Images

For every safety warning about Lime scooters, there’ll be a righteous uproar about the public good regarding the environment. It's about finding the right balance.

Four wheels bad, two wheels good – but not when they’re on the footpath.

The unresolved controversy over electric scooters has become a seething indignation burn-off between those who see them as a public safety risk and those who, in their thousands, are hiring and buying them. It’s fast becoming an intergenerational battlefield: the fun-police fogies versus green-conscious youth.

Confoundingly, the facts are inconvenient to both sides of the argument. Electric scooters are extremely popular, handy and environmentally friendly.

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But they are a new safety risk. ACC statistics tell that story: nearly 150 scooter-related claims in the first two weeks of street-hire company Lime’s launch in Auckland and Christchurch. With the strong demand for scooters, more accidents are inevitable. As they can move at up to 27km/h, where few pedestrians travel at more than 5km/h, the danger is obvious, especially to children and the elderly, who are less able to leap out of the way of the near-silent machines.

The scooters have no suspension to speak of, so riders are at high risk of coming a cropper on uneven surfaces – and many have. The technology behind them is still evolving, with two recent global recalls of some models for smoulder-prone batteries and disintegration risk. Already, there has been a reported brake failure here in a public-hire scooter. And there’s no regulation requiring protective equipment such as helmets.

We could force scooters onto the road as with bikes, but that would only accelerate the accident rate. However brightly coloured, they’re far less visible than bicycles, and even confined to the cycle lane, their low speeds would frustrate other road users.

The ideal would be that we all learn to “share”. This is, after all, a popular and affordable new way to get people out of their cars – a goal near the top of the planet’s survival list. Just as drivers are legally obliged to share the road with cyclists, we could oblige pedestrians to cooperate and accommodate scooters.

The public backlash so far – not least from health professionals – suggests this would be a hard sell. It seems only a matter of time before a child is injured or killed by an e-scooter, and then what? Yes, cars will always be the No 1 killer on wheels. Yet the appalling fact that, in just six days in early November, nine people were killed on New Zealand roads, including children and a pregnant woman, is a stark reminder that no transport tragedy is “acceptable”. Lives are precious and must never be traded for convenience.

There’s no easy solution to this dilemma. Cycling is an “at your own risk” activity, but scooters on footpaths endanger other footpath users. It’s possible the Auckland Council will limit the permitted range of street hires after Lime’s three-month probation is up. But other cities, including Wellington, are letting them in, and they have a growing fan club. Every city wants to be seen as hip, green and youth-focused – sans the backlash following accidents.

The Lime experiment comes as a petition to allow children under 12 to ride bikes on the footpath gathers momentum. Save for the compulsory bike helmets, this proposal carries a similar risk profile to scooters. Children may be less adept at, or considerate about, keeping a safety margin around pedestrians.

Cycles on footpaths also carry the risk that cars emerging from driveways will strike them – already this year a refugee child died in Auckland when his bike was struck by an emerging car as he took to the footpath while approaching a busy intersection.

For the most part, however, children would be safer cycling on footpaths than roads. As for the risk to pedestrians, many would argue children’s safety takes priority. Others would claim the green value of e-scooters also outweighs risks to walkers.

One thing is certain: this is yet another instance of the onrush of new technology, ready or not. Ethical and safety considerations will challenge us over drones, driverless cars and whatever comes next. For every jeremiad of safety warnings, there’ll be a righteous uproar about the public good regarding the environment.

We need to focus on a working consensus. And do it well before the Jetsons’ flying car is upon us.

This editorial was first published in the November 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.