Why helmets are killing Miami’s e-scooter plans

If there was ever an ideal place for e-scooters and micro-mobility it’s sunny and usually warm Miami, Florida. The city has an endemic sidewalk culture with numerous street-level attractions that make it an appealing place to stroll or glide while, simultaneously, a terrible place to drive. And yet, Miami just halted five out of seven scooter operators over helmets.

While there are plenty of people who utilize bikeshare without wearing helmets, the culture of bike-riding in most places encourages helmet use. You’ll occasionally see someone on a moped or larger scooter without a helmet, but common sense and police enforcement are enough of a discouragement for most.

Scooters? Nah. It seems like no one is grabbing a Lime or a Veo or a Wheels or anything like it and putting on a helmet. According to a study by the City of Austin from 2019, out of 190 scooter accidents they studied just one individual was wearing a helmet. Of course, people who wear helmets are probably ending up in the hospital less frequently, but it gives some sense of the lack of popularity of helmets among riders.

A Helbiz scooter. [Image: Hebliz]

As adoption of scooters has increased, the Consumer Product Safety Commission noted late last year that there was an increase in emergency room visits from 2017 to 2020 (up 70%). In addition to the 190,000 emergency room visits, there were 71 fatalities associated with micro-mobility products.

The realities-vs-promise of escooters is pretty stark when you consider what’s happening in Miami. The City first approved a pilot program for scooters in 2018 and they were operating there until November when the Miami City Commission voted to end the pilot project due to safety concerns.

They reversed course in January, slightly, saying that scooters were fine so long as people wore helmets. Then, last week, they revoked the the permits for Bird, Bolt, Lime, Lyft, and Wheels saying they had not done enough to encourage safety.

The two remaining scooter companies are Helbiz and Spin, who have somehow appeased the locals. For Hebiz, the requirement to take a selfie with a helmet before using has helped. The free helmets from Spin may be part of the reason they also weren’t removed from the program.

While helmets aren’t the only safety issue (underaged riding was also mentioned), they are the biggest.

Spin’s free helmet order form. [Image: Screenshot/Spin]

This leads to a much larger philosophical question: If we discourage people from riding e-scooters are we stymying the ability of e-scooters to grow to a point with which we start building cities around them instead of cars? Is it better, in the long run, to risk a few traumatic brain injuries in order to offset the statistically far more fatal automobile?

As urbanists and mobility enthusiasts it’s an easy answer: To make an omelet (human-centric, multi-modal urban transportation network) you first have to crack a few eggs (allow joy-riding 13-year-olds to brain themselves on parked Nissan Sentras).

The question is a little harder for the cities that have a responsibility to their communities.