Transitioning to an e-scooter – The legal and environmental problems
Dr Adam Snow continues his discussion of the challenges that must be overcome if e-scooters are to become more common on our roads.
Using an e-scooter on public roads (and any place the public has access to) is, at present, illegal. Anyone found riding an e-scooter on a public road is, at the least, committing an offence under s.143 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, which requires the driver to have a policy of insurance against third party risks for injury and damage to property. The divisional court held in DPP v King  EWHC 447 (Admin) that an electric scooter is a “motor vehicle” within the meaning of s.185 of the Road Traffic Act. Accordingly, anyone who uses an e-scooter in a public place commits an offence under s.87 of driving without a licence (since no licence category exists for e-scooters), and under s.143 regarding insurance.
Any rider of an e-scooter also faces potential civil legal liabilities should they be in a collision with another vehicle, person or property. The lack of a policy of insurance against such risks means that the user of the vehicle would face personal liability for any damages, medical costs or repair costs for any injury or property damage. The likelihood of finding a duty of care and negligence in a civil claim would be boosted by the rebuttable presumption, under s.11 Civil Evidence Act 1968, of negligence following any conviction for using an e-scooter during the incident (i.e. driving without insurance). Should the collision be the fault of another and the user of the e-scooter be injured, then it is also likely that the court may find the user of the e-scooter was contributory negligent and reduce any damage awards by an appropriate portion. In O’Connel v Jackson  3 All E.R. 129 it was held that failure to wear protective gear while riding a motorbike was contributory negligent. It is likely that such a finding applies to e-scooter use also given the evidence from the USA about the need to wear protective equipment.
The attractiveness of the e-scooter, in addition to the travel freedom it brings, lies in its supposed “green” credentials. However, some researchers have questioned how environmentally friendly these vehicles actually are. Hollingsworth et al (2019) find that the increased use of e-scooters would have a negligible impact on global pollution levels due to manufacture of e-scooters and the collection of ride-share vehicles using traditional methods.
The evidence for the environmental-friendliness of rechargeable lithium ion batteries in e-scooters is also unclear. Early studies into such batteries suggest that ultra-low emission transport, such as plug-in hybrids, are just as effective (Voelker, 2009). According to Notter et al (2010), when factoring the need for a transport network (roads), the large-scale adoption of e-scooters provides limited to no environmental benefit.
Storage is another emerging theme that is proving to be problematic with e-scooters. Most e-scooters currently on trial in the UK (in Olympic Park, London) are through ride-share, where the users pays a fee to hire the vehicle for a period. GPS trackers mean that the vehicle can be left virtually anywhere and the user is charged according for the period of use. Emerging evidence worldwide suggests a real problem of safe storage for other road users, in particular vulnerable pedestrians, who have to navigate a maze of abandoned scooters. Firms have been improving in this regard, with more storage and collection facilities, however the problem persists. Large e-scooter organisations are facing numerous class action law suits in America for the safe storage issue.
It is too early to tell whether e-scooters will prove to be a fad or a long-lasting modal change for transport, particularly in those last few miles from station to work or home. However, there are a number of issues that need further research. As identified in this post, the short-term research agenda should be focused on ensuring safe manufacture, use and storage to protect all road users. The government will also need to examine means of controlling construction and use such that users can be identified and appropriate sanctions imposed for irresponsible and unsafe use. For those thinking about purchasing an e-scooter, it is worth thinking about the current legal regime and whether you can use the vehicle legally and safely under the present law, i.e. only in private places from which the public is excluded.