Policing Insight publishes Charlie Norman’s latest thought leadership piece “Electric Scooters: Post Covid solution or policing nightmare?” – published Friday 18th September

Charlie Norman, Managing Director at DriveTech, comments on the emergence of public e-scooter trials in the UK and the challenge for the police.

The widespread availability of E-scooters on the roads of British towns and cities is causing increasing controversy and producing polarised reactions. Charlie Norman of DriveTech examines the issues for policing that E-scooters present.

“Public authorities, keen to see people returning safely to their offices (but ideally not crowding public transport) began to remove the disincentives and barriers to their use.”

When Emily Hartridge was killed in a collision in South London in July 2019, the mainstream media were very quick to focus on the vehicle on which she had been travelling at the time of her death.

Hartridge had a high media profile: she was a broadcaster, Instragram influencer and social media personality. She was also the first person to die in a collision involving an E-scooter when she collided with a lorry in Battersea, and her death prompted widespread debate about the safety of the machines.

Then COVID-19 came along and public authorities, keen to see people returning safely to their offices (but ideally not crowding public transport) began to remove the disincentives and barriers to their use.

Substantial challenge to policing

The Government has been wrestling with the question of ‘micromobility’ – which includes E-scooters – for some time. Britain has lagged behind other countries such as Germany, France, Austria and Switzerland where use is currently permitted, although laws and regulations differ by country.

As recently as the start of the year, the only place where one could be used in Britain was on private land, although the prohibition of use on a public road or footpath is widely ignored. Covid has prompted the Government to accelerate trials of micromobility rental schemes and they are now in operation in London, Milton Keynes, Middlesbrough and several other towns and cities.

The current highway infrastructure in most towns and cities does not have the widespread provision of cycle lanes which are probably the environment to which they are best suited.

The challenge to the police is potentially substantial. Some types of scooter can be programmed to exceed 70 km/h, although scooters in the rental trials are limited to 25 km/h. The current highway infrastructure in most towns and cities does not have the widespread provision of cycle lanes which are probably the environment to which they are best suited, leaving the rider to choose between breaking the law and using the footpath (where they represent a danger to others) or taking to the road (where they represent a danger to themselves).

The law in relation to E-scooters is complex and will need to evolve quickly. They are currently classified as Personal Lightweight Electric Vehicles (PLEVs), and in the eyes of the law they are subject to a similar rigorous regulation to that which covers larger vehicles: MOT, tax, licensing etc.

The pilot rental schemes dictate that riders must be over 16 and possess at least a provisional driving licence to hire a PLEV – but private use of your own scooter on the road remains an offence in all circumstances, with the potential to lead to a fine of £300 and six penalty points.

Hazards and criminal uses

There are plenty of potential hazards. First, there is the safety of the vehicle itself. They have small wheels, limited suspension, a very low centre of gravity and a riding position that is unfamiliar to many.

The requirement to operate them with both hands seriously diminishes the rider’s ability to give hand signals; they are generally faced with a choice of indicating or braking – not both.

The arrival of E-scooters presents a very real alternative to the street criminal who is looking for a means of speedy escape through the crowd.

There are also important questions surrounding the lack of preparedness of many riders to use the equipment. Many if not most riders will receive no instruction whatsoever before moving onto busy streets full of vehicles of all sizes, and with no requirement for any safety equipment such as a helmet, lights or high-visibility clothing.

The police are also likely to be concerned about the use of E-scooters in other forms of criminality. The Metropolitan Police has had considerable success in bringing down the level of so-called ‘moped crime’, but the arrival of E-scooters presents a very real alternative to the street criminal who is looking for a means of speedy escape through the crowd.

Law and operational guidance

And quite apart from the hazards and risks, the on-street challenges facing individual police officers are far from trivial. What are police powers to stop an E-scooter and demand documents? And which documents?

How can an officer tell if a scooter is privately owned or rented? Do collisions have to be reported? What’s the law on drink-riding? Can an E-scooter legally be discarded anywhere?

“Care will be required to manage the risk that the growth of micromobility isn’t accompanied by a hike in casualties or a source of fresh tension between the police and (predominantly younger) road users.”

What are police powers for dangerous riding, or riding on the pavement? And what about speeding? Or insurance? The law and operational guidance has some catching up to do.

The Government’s desire to catch up with other countries is understandable and the potential for E-scooters to help move populations around in a socially distanced way is undeniable. But care will be required to manage the risk that the growth of micromobility isn’t accompanied by a hike in casualties or a source of fresh tension between the police and (predominantly younger) road users.

At DriveTech we have been working to develop packages to help equip riders – especially those who are inexperienced and young – but there is no mandatory requirement on any user to undertake any training at any time whatsoever when preparing to ride.

The apparently widespread disregard for the law that is evident in many areas is likely to increase unless meaningful deterrents and disincentives are put in place.

If we are to see a continued growth in micromobility, then it should be accompanied by provisions to ensure that riders are better prepared and protected and that the role of the police is clear. Short cuts taken at this time could have deadly consequences further down the line.

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