A hospital conference room is an unlikely place to assess a budding transportation revolution, but a team of San Francisco trauma specialists and researchers who gathered there sees its work as essential to ensuring the safety of residents in a city of high-tech guinea pigs.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Dr. Catherine Juillard, a trauma surgeon at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, said during the meeting in late June.
The concern began with the arrival of thousands of shared electric scooters this year. The pay-as-you-go vehicles — unlocked for $1 with a smartphone app, and then 15 cents per minute — turned pedestrians into urban adventurers whirring by at up 15 mph.
After nearly three months, the city issued cease-and-desist orders that temporarily took the scooters off the streets, but they’re poised to return as soon as this month, when the city issues permits to as many as five scooter companies.
(Two electric scooter companies, Bird and Lime, showed up in the Twin Cities last month.)
The major scooter companies say they’re paying attention to injuries and doing what they can to encourage riders to be safe.
Bird, the segment’s biggest player, with scooters in more than a dozen cities and a value estimated at $2 billion, said Thursday that it was forming a safety advisory council led by David Strickland, a former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Strickland’s panel will “focus on increasing the safety of people riding slow-speed electric scooters in a car-centric world,” the company said.
Bird said it supported the collection of data on injuries, “in particular those caused by cars.”
It’s not just the scooters that Juillard and her colleagues are worried about. During their first meeting, the team called out the possible transportations options it might see: electric bikes, mopeds and scooters, and then hoverboards, Segways and even unicycles.
Juillard sees only the most banged up of accident victims, those who are rushed to the operating theater or admitted to the intensive-care unit. But Dr. Chris Colwell, the hospital’s chief of emergency medicine, sees everything from bumps and bruises to life-altering head injuries, and safety concerns popped up almost as soon as the scooters did.
“I’m quite confident that we were seeing five to 10 injuries from this a week, and I’m probably underestimating that,” Colwell said. “We saw one or zero a month before the increase in electric scooters.”
Bird and two other companies, Lime and Spin, put thousands of scooters on San Francisco’s streets this year in what Aaron Peskin, a member of the board of supervisors, called “a strategy of ask for forgiveness, not permission.”
The exact number of scooters that hit the streets is hard to know, but Bird told the Wall Street Journal that its customers totaled 90,000 miles in the first three weeks in San Francisco. A few weeks later, the San Francisco supervisors issued the cease-and-desist letters.
The imminent return of the electric scooters to San Francisco puts pressure on the doctors and public health professionals working on a taxonomy of e-vehicle types, sorting out shared and not shared, with or without a helmet, severity of the injury, and so on.
“The ideal is to be ready with standardized data-collection instruments when the pilot rolls out,” said Megan Wier, an epidemiologist with the San Francisco Department of Public Health.