The Commons Transport Select Committee e-scooter enquiry – the subtitle of which is “pavement nuisance or transport innovation?” – heard this morning from three leading e-scooter providers and from DfT Roads Minister Rachel Maclean MP. The firms offered broadly consistent analyses of the benefits and risks of the technology and the Minister gave further background on the recent decision to authorise road-based trials of hired e-scooters.
Representatives of global e-scooter firms Bird, Lime and Voi appeared remotely before the Committee. All have significant experience of operating scooter fleets in European and American cities and all are strong advocates of the environmental benefits of wider e-scooter use.
Questioned about the DfT’s requirements that UK trials should be limited to holders of driving licences and should be subject to full compulsory motor insurance, the representatives noted that this was different from e-bikes and gave a very clear indication that their preferred long term position would be to equate both modes of transport by removing these requirements. Nevertheless, they confirmed that scooter fleets within the approved UK trials would be covered by motor insurance arranged by the operator.
Other safety issues raised included the use of helmets and driver training. The evidence given was that providers actively encouraged the use of helmets but did not advocate compulsion. A survey from Paris in which 70% of respondents said compulsory wearing of helmets would deter them from using scooters was mentioned. Certain providers already offer optional rider safety training in other cities – and may give helmets away free at these events – and all have mandatory in-app safety scripts and warnings.
Illegal pavement riding and ‘street clutter’ (randomly abandoned scooters) were real concerns for the Committee. The answer to the first was, again, clear in-app warnings and the use of GPS technology to track pavement riding and to warn users who consistently infringe, with the ultimate sanction being barring serial offenders from hiring. [How successful this might be with GPS accuracies of 1m was not addressed.]
Given that scooter trials are almost certain to be dockless, the answer to the second (clutter) was to arrange designated physical parking areas or to geofence virtual parking areas (which would show up in the user app) in which the scooter must be left in order to bring a hire period to an end (by the scooter locking itself until a new hirer signed in). One of the firms mentioned the UK app ‘FixMyStreet’, which allows e-notifications of street issues to be reported to authorities (and referred also to the Parisian equivalent ‘DansMaRue’).
The evidence from the scooter firms was consistent and presented clearly and attractively, with a clear emphasis on the environmental and carbon reduction benefits. Rider safety looks to be being taken very responsibly, but perhaps the views on insurance and third party risks were a little underdeveloped – that maybe unsurprising, since these points are very much on the negative side of an otherwise very positive narrative around scooters.
In her evidence the Minster explained how and why the COVID pandemic had caused DfT to bring forward the planned trials. There had been insufficient time to amend legislation to remove scooters from the statutory definition of motor vehicles and therefore driving licencing and compulsory insurance requirements would flow through to the trials. The necessary insurance would be provided by the operator: “it’s a bit like renting a car when you go on holiday”.
Her mind was open about future arrangements for driving licences and insurance and DfT would need to analyse data from trials before making decisions. The Committee chair pressed her on the risk of motorists paying for harm caused by scooters, via the MIB mechanism, because of decisions such as Vnuk and Lewis v Tindale (although he didn’t mention the cases by name). She avoided answering directly by saying that there was still a lot of legal analysis needed in this area.
She was very clear that only approved hire schemes would be authorised and that there was no plan at present to relax the ban on road use of privately-owned scooters. She confirmed that scooter use will be subject to the full range of criminal offences that applies to car and motor bike use and that penalty points would be endorsed on licences in the usual way.
She explained that DfT expects issues such as rider safety training, scooter parking or ‘clutter’, and liaison with enforcement authorities and disabled road user goups to be addressed comprehensively by candidate trial schemes as part of the DfT’s process for authorising a trial.
This was a timely session given that the first trials are due to begin imminently in Tees Valley and given that there are at least 10 other candidate trials seeking authorisation from DfT. The insurance problems were probably a little skirted over – something we’d be expected to say, from a specialist perspective – and the public messaging that road use of privately-owned scooters remains illegal could have been more clearly emphasised and signposted.
We expect the Committee’s report will be published some time after Parliament returns in the autumn.