Firstly, e-scooters1 aren't yet legal in all Australian states and cities. Even where they are legal, the laws are not standard, the risks are unknown, and there is a real financial risk if a rider causes an accident.
On 17 November 2019, Else Kennedy reported in the Guardian that sales of e-scooters had "grown massively". In the same article, Mitchell Price, spokesman for transportation company Lime, claimed that there were already more than 155,000 privately owned scooters in Australia.
The Guardian went on to report that retailers had been giving incorrect advice to consumers in relation to the laws surrounding e-scooters. The Guardian reported that:
"At a JB HiFi store in Sydney, a sales assistant advised that 'they let us sell here, so they're legal to ride", while a staff member in Melbourne said "they're legal to ride up to 30km/h on a footpath'".*
The first trial relating to ride-share e-scooters commenced in the Brisbane CBD in November 2018, with new e-scooter laws commencing across Queensland on 14 December 2018. The Financial Review reported on 8 November 2019 that more than 1.8 million e-scooter rides had already been taken.
The Queensland rules make a distinction between motorised scooters (which are under 200 watts and capable of speeds of up to 10km/h), motorised wheelchairs2 and personal mobility devices (aka 'rideables') which includes e-scooters with higher capacities. The latter can travel on the footpath and on certain roads at speeds of up to 25km/h, although riders must travel at a safe speed around pedestrians.
In the ACT (and incidentally, in the Australian Antarctic Territory) e-scooters became 'street-legal' on 20 December 2019. Riders are limited to a maximum speed of 15km/h on footpaths and up to 25km/h on local roads and all other 'permitted locations'.
In New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia, it is legal to ride an e-scooter only on private property. In Tasmania, Victoria and the Northern Territory e-scooters below 200-watts may be ridden at speeds of up to 10km/h in some public places. Higher powered vehicles are not permitted.
The situation is changing rapidly
In Adelaide, from 1 February 2020, a long-running trial will be expanded to include both the Adelaide CBD and North Adelaide.
On 22 January 2020 a 12-month trial commenced in Darwin. As reported by the ABC, "e-scooter company Neuron assured Territorians its new design was built to 'withstand tropical conditions'". In Darwin there is a speed limit of 15km/h, although the speed limit is 12km/h in designated slow zones. Riders aren't permitted on the road unless there is an obstruction, in which case the scooter must travel less than 50m along the road to avoid the obstruction.
There are also plans for an e-scooter trial in Bunbury WA.
In Victoria, the ABC reported that RACV senior transport manager Peter Kartsidimas said e-scooters were fast and reliable, and that while there was "no silver bullet", e-scooters could help combat crippling congestion in Australia's capital cities:
"Let's get things going. Most people want these scooters, let's get some national, consistent rules in the next few months," he said.
The ABC went on to report claims by Michelle Mannering (an e-scooter entrepreneur) that:
"I ride past multiple cops per day and they don't care. I'm sure if I was running down pedestrians or was on my phone they would but they have better things to worry about".
At present, only NSW is trying to stem the tide. Eight Sydney councils were in discussions with scooter companies, but NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance ruled out the trial of e-scooters in an interview aired by 10 News First:
"I'm not going to allow the e-scooter companies to pollute Sydney in the same way they have around the world," he said.
"Ultimately they're not going to form any part of the transport solution in our city. They're a danger to the community, they're a danger on the roads, they're dangerous on footpaths, and they're dangerous generally".
We believe e-scooters are here to stay
Fortunately, there are moves to standardise the laws across
On 24 October 2019 the National Transport Commission ('NTC') released a consultation paper seeking feedback on options to safely integrate personal mobility devices (including e-scooters) into existing Australian road rules. NTC Executive Leader (Safety), Mandi Mees said:
"...people are becoming less dependent on traditional forms of transport in favour of innovative devices that move people more efficiently around cities and communities. These new devices largely operate in an undefined regulatory environment.
The Australian Road Rules predate most newer technologies which means they are not recognised under current legislation. At present, the rules only provide for the use of low-powered motorised scooters that have a maximum speed of 10km/h."
The NTC recommended that the Australian Road Rules be amended to allow e-scooters (and other personal mobility devices) on most pedestrian infrastructure, bicycle paths and local roads, with a speed limit of 10km/h on a footpath or shared path and a speed limit of 25km/h on a separated footpath (designated for the use of bicycles), bicycle path or local road.
Public Consultation closed on 13 December 2019. The NTC will not deliver its recommendations for ministerial approval until November 2020. Alongside that enquiry, the NTC is also looking into motorised mobility devices (electric wheelchairs and sit-down mobility scooters).
Personal injury risks
On 7 February 2019, Isabel Hamilton of Business Insider Australia reported that an investigation by Consumer Reports ('CR') in the United States revealed that there had been more than 1,545 accidents in the previous year.
As no national data on scooter crashes existed, CR sent requests to medical facilities. 60 facilities responded, of which 23 were able to provide information. The other 37 were unable to provide CR with information either because they didn't track scooter injuries, lacked the capability to do so, or they had no reports of injuries on file.
Due to the amount of missing data, the researchers believed that the actual number of e-scooter accidents was higher - "that's the one thing we've been able to show over and over again is that all of our datasets are incomplete", one Austin-based doctor told CR.
CR also referred to a recent study by Portland's Bureau of Transportation, which found the e-scooter injury rate was 2.2 accidents per 10,000 miles - much higher than the national average for motorbikes (0.05 per 10,000 miles) and cars (0.1 per 10,000).
Auckland has had the scooters for some time. As reported in the New Daily, since October 2018 the NZ Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) has recorded more than 1200 injury claims for e-scooters.
The New Daily went on to quote Monash University senior research fellow Stuart Newstead as saying:
"From what I've seen, they have reasonably small wheels and even the concept of having something that goes 15km/h alongside pedestrians, is dangerous."
In Brisbane, where Lime first launched its fleet, there were 60 scooter-related injuries reported over a three month period. In May 2019 the ABC reported a fatal accident wherein a 50-year-old man suffered critical head and facial injuries after crashing his e-scooter at South Bank.
The National Transport Commission in Australia roughly estimates that the accident risks will be similar to those involved with bicycles (see page 43 of the consultation paper).
So, assuming the risk of injury has not put you off, are there financial risks to consider? What happens if you injure someone, or damage their property with an e-scooter that you either own, or rent?
It is straightforward to insure your car (or any other registered vehicle) against such risks. In turn, insurance companies have reasonable data to assess the risks and set appropriate premiums. Policies are available for conditionally registered vehicles such as forklifts.
Similarly, it is easy to obtain liability coverage for a bicycle3 - this is commonly included as part of a home-owner's policy, and is also available from cyclists' associations.
It seems to us that higher powered e-scooters will fall outside either set of policies - particularly where they aren't yet any legal (and/or where there are no) standards for registration.
To some extent, this difficulty also applies to mobility scooters used by elderly or disabled people4. For example in Whitton v Dexus Funds Management , the Plaintiff was struck from behind by an elderly woman driving an (uninsured) mobility scooter in Deepwater Plaza Shopping Centre. She sued the centre operator, claiming hoarding on a shopfront had obstructed her visibility of the oncoming mobility scooter. The trial judge found that the sole cause of the accident was the careless control of the mobility scooter - with the Plaintiff in turn losing her case. The judge went on to call for mobility scooters to be insured.
Such cases are rare, although given the higher speeds of e-scooters, the fact they can move between the road and the footpath, and the likely rider demographics, Holman Webb does see the monetary risks associated with e-scooters as being significantly higher than those associated with motorised mobility devices.
We expect new insurance products to enter the market as the sector expands, as well as if/when the rules surrounding e-scooters are harmonised across the states.
In the meantime, consumers should check their policies and ask their insurers what is covered. Insurers on the other hand need to consider whether (and on what terms) they wish to cover e-scooter use, and amend their product disclosure statements accordingly.
1 An e-scooter is a stand up, battery-powered 2-wheeled scooter.
2 In Queensland this includes electric wheelchairs and sit-down mobility scooters, both of which must be registered with DOT which includes CTP insurance.
3 E-bikes with auxiliary motors are defined in the same way as normal pedal cycles. Anything with more power is seen as a motorcycle, and needs to be registered.
4 There is usually coverage available through a combination of home-owners insurance and state CTP schemes.
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