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opinion

E-scooters on the sidewalk outside a commuter rail station in San Francisco.JASON HENRY/The New York Times News Service

Fiona Tapp is an Ottawa-based writer.

Most cities have too many cars. The environmental impact is staggering, and road congestion has a negative effect on our mood and daily lives. Last year, Toronto was even voted the worst commute in North America.

Which is why innovative transport solutions are eagerly adopted by commuters desperate to leave their car behind. E-scooter-sharing platforms such as Lime and Bird allow users to locate an electric scooter using their apps and then ride them around the city before dropping them off for someone else to use. Lime says their scooters can get up to a maximum speed of about 24 kilometres an hour and as they emit no greenhouse gases, they can seem like the eco-conscious choice for city dwellers.

However, they are not without their detractors. Critics are concerned about their safety and view them as a nuisance, especially as some users leave them blocking sidewalks where they can become a hazard for people with mobility issues or parents navigating streets with strollers.

As to their green rating, a new study suggests they might not be as innocent as first thought. Research from North Carolina State University found that e-scooters are less environmentally friendly than travelling the same distance on a bus, moped, bicycle or on foot. It actually takes a lot of work, and emissions, to get those scooters manufactured, serviced, charged each day and then put back on the street for use.

Across the United States, a backlash has taken place with scooters vandalized or dumped in garbage cans or worse. Individual companies won’t reveal the numbers on how many scooters have been damaged in this way, but reports suggest that both Bird and Lime operate at a significant loss.

Here in Canada, Lime executives have been showing off their wares at City Hall in Ottawa in a bid to get the sharing scooters accepted. Calgary has launched an e-scooter pilot program and apparently Edmonton and Montreal are next.

As well as their questionable eco-rating, dockless e-scooters are seen by some as a form of litter; left all over the city and not returned to specific stations, they can make an area look untidy. These companies effectively use public land for commercial purposes without much community consultation.

More pressing, however, are the issues of safety. E-scooter companies encourage users to wear a helmet but most riders don’t. They also strongly advise that users follow local road-traffic safety rules but municipalities have been slow to adapt their current rules to these new vehicles, leaving riders confused about where and how they can ride.

Last month a high-profile e-scooter fatality in Britain, the first one in the country, heightened safety concerns. Emily Hartridge, who died after colliding with a truck, was an incredibly popular YouTube and Instagram influencer with a large following and more than 300,000 subscribers. It’s illegal to ride e-scooters on British roads or even on the sidewalk, but those who ignore the rule usually only receive a warning from police. Since Ms. Hartridge’s death, police have cracked down on illegal riding and have fined more than 100 e-scooter riders in London.

Although both Bird and Lime suggest that riders wear a helmet, its advice is at odds with the whole ethos of the platform which suggests impromptu use. Most people aren’t walking around with a helmet in their bag just in case they decide to ride an e-scooter. Official rules differ by location; for example, in California, riders are not required to wear a helmet.

Anthony Kouri, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Toledo Medical Center, regularly sees a number of e-scooter accidents. “These are injuries that could be prevented by wearing helmets, however, most riders do not wear any head protection," he says. “Up to half of injuries [we see] are severe, including fractures, ligament injuries and organ damage. Riders who are injured often sustain these injuries on their first scooter ride.”

As with any issue of personal safety, legal liability isn’t far behind. Personal-injury lawyer Neama Rahmani says that riders need to be aware of their rights and responsibilities. “If you injure someone while driving a scooter, or if the driver who hits you isn’t insured, you have to pay and you waive your right to sue the rental company,” he says.

Mr. Rahmani says e-scooter companies have been slow to take safety concerns seriously rather than just protecting themselves. “So far, we haven’t seen civil courts holding e-scooter companies responsible for injuries and deaths because they have an ironclad waiver of liability provisions, but with eight confirmed deaths in the U.S., this is becoming an issue. It will take a change in our existing laws to make scooter companies finally take safety seriously,” he says.

The road has been bumpy so far. But like it or not, e-scooters are probably coming to a city near you.

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