May 2—A first-of-its-kind study on injuries related to dockless electric scooters found that most incidents were preventable, and now Austin city officials are hoping to use their findings to inform future policy.
The city's health and transportation departments collaborated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to review 271 reports of possible scooter related injuries filed from Sept. 5 to Nov. 30, 2018. The study, however, only confirmed 190 cases involved scooter riders, one involved a pedestrian and one involved a cyclist. The rest were determined to be hurt while riding a gas-powered scooter, moped or device that uses three wheels, or didn't involve a device at all, said Jeff Taylor, an Austin Public Health epidemiologist.
"If anything, this study also helped prove out that, that we need to be more precise in our language when we're recording data that a scooter is not just a scooter. We mean something very specific," Austin Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar said Thursday.
The CDC said the study found "a high proportion of e-scooter related injuries involved potentially preventable risk factors, such as lack of helmet use or motor vehicle interaction." City officials also said almost half the head injuries documented could have been prevented.
The study drew data from Austin-Travis County EMS incident reports and information from nine area hospitals, as well as from interviews with some who were injured. Taylor said it was important to interview the injured so the data could be more specific.
Among the findings:
20 people for every 100,000 scooter trips taken were injured, and most were first-time riders.
48% were between 18 and 29 years old. Researchers recommend targeting educational materials to that age group going forward.
39% of injuries happened between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.
29% told researchers they had been drinking before they rode.
Only one person of the 190 riders hurt was wearing a helmet.
More than half of the riders were injured in the street and a third were hurt while riding on the sidewalk.
More than a third said speed contributed to them crashing.
Having more accurate data about the scooters and how they're affecting Austin residents could help inform policy discussions in the future, said Dr. Christopher Ziebell, emergency department medical director for Dell Seton Medical Center. The hospital does not have a uniform way to record the number and type of scooter injuries coming into the emergency room, he said.
Since May 2018, Dell Seton Medical Center saw at least 97 people who had to be hospitalized with severe injuries, Ziebell said. Those include people who will spend their lives in a nursing home because of head injuries, he said. Others suffered significant broken bones that required surgeries and one person has died.
"I don't see that many people from bicycles, I don't see that many people from shootings or stabbings. I think this would be a place where we want to focus some public attention," Ziebell said.
One to two less serious injuries, including scrapes or sprained ankles, still come through the emergency room daily, he said. The tallies from the hospital do not include those who may have treated themselves at home.
"I think the last public incident of this magnitude was when the bad batches of K2 hit the streets and we were having ambulance after ambulance come in," Ziebell said. "That's kind of the only other example I can think of where something happened in the public and we felt it in the ER."
During a period comparable to the one the CDC studied—four months in 2018, between May 7 and Sept. 6—the Texas Department of Transportation found that in Austin 1,945 people were injured in a vehicle and eight were killed; 105 were injured on motorcycles and five were killed; 60 were hurt using bicycles. Scooter injuries during that time tallied 28, according to the city of Austin.
Lessening the number of injuries related to scooters could start with messaging and education, Ziebell said. Patients have told him they thought hopping on a scooter would be a quick, fun thing, but they end up hitting a pebble and crashing.
"I still hear patients who come in and say, 'I had no idea,' " he said. His patients range in age from their 20s to 70s.
The study found 16% of incidents the city surveyed involved a vehicle, and Ziebell said he has seen some of them. From far away, scooter riders can look like pedestrians walking on the road, he said. Drivers then think they have more time to cross or turn than they actually do, he said.
"I think that until we get used to having these things in our vision, we won't have trained our eyes to look for them," Ziebell said.
It's possible the study could inform a scooter user ordinance the Austin City Council is expected to take up this month. The ordinance would give Austin police officers the power to ticket dangerous scooter riders, create parking requirements and restrict use of a phone while using a scooter.
The ordinance was supposed to be reviewed in March, but a vote on it got pushed back because of the study, Spillar said.
Statesman reporter Mark D. Wilson contributed to this article.