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the road ahead

A person rides an e-scooter on a bike path in Calgary.Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

E-scooter sharing companies count on people to use their heads to keep themselves, and everyone else, safe.

That means: don’t leave a scooter lying in the middle of the sidewalk, don’t use it for an illegal tipsy ride home and don’t ride without a helmet.

While companies say they’re figuring out safeguards to prevent some of these dangers, getting people to wear helmets has been an especially tough nut to crack.

“Obviously, we’d prefer that all our users wear helmets – we’d love it,” said Stewart Lyons, CEO of Bird Canada. “We could offer an attached helmet, but a lot of people won’t use them, so what it becomes is a reminder.”

In 2019, shared two-wheeled electric kick scooters – with speeds electronically limited to 25 km/h or less, depending on local rules – started appearing in some Canadian cities, including Kelowna, Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal. You use an app to find a scooter near you, rent it by the minute, and then leave it when you’re done.

Scooting dangerously?

But the popularity of shared scooters has led to emergency room visits.

For instance, from May 28 to August 24 this year in Calgary, for instance, at least 600 people ended up in the ER because of e-scooter crashes – that works out to about one crash for every 1,000 e-scooter rides in Calgary this summer.

Of those visits, 138 were for head and facial injuries.

A 2020 Detroit study found that 28 per cent of scooter crash injuries were to the head and neck.

“If you’re in a collision, your head and your brain need to be protected,” said Robyn Robertson, president and CEO of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF). “A helmet can mitigate the impact to reduce the level of injury.”

One study comparing bike to e-scooter injuries in Washington D.C. found that only two per cent of scooter riders had been wearing helmets – compared to 66 per cent for cyclists.

While there isn’t much research yet on helmets and e-scooters specifically, there’s plenty on helmets and bicycles.

In 2018, a Norwegian analysis of 55 research studies found that helmets reduced serious head injuries in bike crashes by 60 per cent and traumatic brain injury by 53 per cent.

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Helmets required?

So, do scooter-sharing companies require riders to wear helmets?

So far, most don’t. Companies including Bird, Lime and Neuron Mobility say they follow local rules – if cities or provinces require helmets, then the companies require them.

Only four provinces – British Columbia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia – require adults to wear helmets on bicycles.

Those helmet rules apply to e-scooters, too, said the Canada Safety Council (CSC).

Cities can also apply their own helmet rules for scooters, although most don’t. Montreal, which axed its e-scooter pilot in 2020, required helmets for e-scooters — even though helmets aren’t mandatory in Quebec.

In B.C., where cyclists and e-scooter users have to wear helmets, companies in Kelowna handed out hundreds of free helmets to scooter users.

Ultimately, it’s up to police to enforce local helmet rules. If B.C. riders don’t wear helmets, for instance, they can be ticketed. It’s not clear how many tickets have been issued. The province’s stats on helmet tickets don’t specify whether an e-scooter was involved.

Part of the problem with getting scooters riders to wear helmets is that most of us don’t walk around with helmets unless we’re planning to ride our bikes.

One company, Neuron Mobility – which operates in Vernon, Red Deer, Calgary and Ottawa – has a helmet attached to each of its scooters.

Riders can choose to unlock the helmet and wear it. Or, they can use their own helmet.

The company only requires helmets in Vernon, because of B.C.’s helmet law. Users can either use Neuron’s helmet or their own.

While the company doesn’t stop you from riding their scooters without a helmet, they give you a 35 cent discount on your next ride if you take a photo of yourself wearing a helmet, said Ankush Karwal, Neuron’s regional manager.

“We partner with the cities we work in,” Karwal said. “If the cities choose to make [helmets] mandatory, as they do in Vernon, we will educate users to wear helmets.”

While no other companies have attached helmets, some – including Bird, which doesn’t operate in the provinces with helmet laws – offer discounts for helmet selfies.

Should it be the law?

In a recent Neuron survey, 91 per cent of respondents thought e-scooter riders should wear helmets and 64 per cent supported laws requiring them.

Should helmets be mandatory everywhere in Canada?

“I would be in favour, but then I think it should be for every device,” said Bird’s Lyons. “If scooters don’t have to and cyclists did, then it’s confusing.”

TIRF’s Robertson said legislation can have benefits, “but it’s more important that people are educated as to why it’s important to wear a helmet.”

Helmets alone “aren’t a panacea,” Robertson said.

Cities need to ensure that there are safe places to ride scooters – for instance, in bike lanes – and work with companies to make sure riders understand the rules, Robertson said.

“Cities should have a say in making sure it’s safe for all users … and not just wake up one morning and see e-scooters on your streets,” Robertson said. “These are vehicles. Yes, they can be fun, but they’re not toys.”

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