The headline from this morning’s Commons Transport Committee is the call for widespread legalisation of e-scooter use on UK roads. Inevitably, that comes subject to appropriate regulation of use and to necessary safety standards being in place. However welcome that may be, there are very delicate trade-offs and judgments needed to achieve a clear, safe and readily enforceable legal regime for scooter use which the Committee seems to have ducked and pushed over to the government to resolve.
The Committee recognises that “An e-scooter travelling on a pavement at a speed of up to 15.5 mph – the Government’s maximum speed limit for the trials – is a serious hazard both for the user and pedestrians”.
The call for a ban on pavement riding is of course sensible – although it will need to be properly enforced and, given the lack of much evidence of that at the moment, it might be fair to be a bit sceptical about that – but it seems strange to regard only pavement riding at full speed as a “serious hazard” when a rider is clearly going to be running similar risks on the road and presenting a new hazard for cyclists, motorists and any other road user.
Driving licences, full or provisional, are required of riders under the rules for the current trials. MPs see this as a potential possible barrier to wide take-up of scooters and recommend that “users should not be required to have a driving licence either for rental schemes or private use.” At first sight, this might appear well-founded, but from a risk perspective, requiring users to have a licence not only means that riders can be presumed to have a reasonable level of traffic experience but it could also facilitate safety enforcement by allowing for the imposition of penalty points for careless or dangerous riding.
In what may prove to be an influential passage from the report, the Committee concludes that “In our view, an e-scooter is more akin to a bike or an e-bike, rather than a moped, and we share concerns that too many requirements on users or operators may be burdensome and discourage take-up.”
If the government was to adopt this view then several consequences may follow. First would be the ‘no licence’ point above. Second would be an encouragement rather than a legal obligation to wear a helmet. Third, and perhaps most importantly, would be the absence of compulsory insurance for scooter use, given that it is not required for bikes and e-bikes. If this was the final outcome then there would be a very real risk of people injured by scooters going uncompensated, which surely would be far from satisfactory and leave some real gaps in redress mechanisms in the event of serious injuries in particular.
The Committee doesn’t reach a definitive conclusion about insurance and instead asks the government to “determine the future insurance requirements” based on detailed evidence of the number and nature of collisions during the current trials.
It is difficult to disagree with such an evidence-based approach to the whole question of the appropriate regulatory framework around e-scooter use, and, standing back, the broad question of the regulation of e-scooter use generally seems to pivot around the starting point for the analysis.
If it is approached with a pre-set view to treat them as bikes then certain consequences and a light touch regime appear to follow. In contrast, starting with an evidence-based approach that draws on detailed data from the present trials would seem a good deal more likely to deliver a legal regime that far more closely reflects, and is calibrated to mitigate as far as possible, the actual risks of e-scooter use in a wide range of settings.
It is hoped that the Department for Transport will take the latter approach, but that is far from a given. The government’s formal response to the Committee’s report should give an indication in due course of how it intends to proceed. In the meantime, the regulatory challenge was captured well by one speaker in this Tuesday’s (29 September) debate in the House of Lords on the regulations governing the scooter trials:
“We need to see the outcome of properly run trial schemes for e-scooters independently evaluated against transparent and laid down criteria before reaching conclusions, since there are clear safety concerns that need to be balanced against the benefits of any emerging new technology … there must also be proper and full, not rushed, public consultation on and parliamentary scrutiny of what would be a major mode of transport development that will affect us all for the long term.”