Electric scooters could save time and money but they remain illegal
Pricewatch: Shane Ross has asked the RSA to research how ‘vehicles’ should be regulated
As recently as two years ago a grown-up on a scooter was regarded by most right-thinking Irish people as something of an attention-seeking oddball but since the start of the year the devices have started appearing in large numbers across the country.
The cool kids of Silicon Valley are to blame. They have been zipping about on them without the merest hint of shame since at least 2016 and small start-ups with big plans to rent scooters to the world with schemes that operate in the same way as city bike rental schemes have attracted hundreds of millions of dollars from venture capitalists.
This is good news and by almost every measure the e-scooter is the perfect vehicle for short commutes and city crossings.
They are particularly welcome in slightly hilly countries such as Ireland where the weather is changeable, the wind unforgiving and the thieves competent.
Scooters are eco-friendly, comparatively cheap, zippy and very hard to steal because they are compact and lightweight and can easily go where their owner goes. They can also be easily carried onto a bus, train or taxi should the weather turn at any point along the journey.
And because they allow users to comfortably cover distances of up to 20km – although realistically the range is closer to half that – without breaking a sweat, people can arrive at work or at their bus stop or train station fast and without having to shower before they sit at their desk.
There is just one teeny-weeny problem however. Under legislation that is more than 50 years old, they are illegal in Ireland.
According to stern voices which have come from the halls of the Department of Transport, anyone caught using an e-scooter in a public place could be fined, given penalty points or have their “vehicle” seized by gardaí.
That may seem extreme but it is the law. Specifically it is the Road Traffic Act 1961. Even though they are much closer in almost every single way to a bike than any other mode of transport, electric scooters are viewed by the powers-that-be as “mechanically propelled” and anyone using a mechanically propelled vehicle in a public place must have insurance, tax and a driving licence.
On the surface, this legal requirement has created an obstacle that is insurmountable as even if a scooter user was super diligent and tried to tax or insure their device they would find it impossible to do so.
The scooter industry in Europe has attracted more than $150 million of investment from venture capital firms over the past year
The Minister for Transport Shane Ross has asked the Road Safety Authority (RSA) to research how e-scooters and other such vehicles are regulated in other countries, particularly other EU member states and he is said to be “keen to understand the road safety implications of the use of such vehicles on public roads, especially when interacting with other vehicles”.
It is only when that research has been completed, that a decision will be taken on whether or not to amend existing legislation to make e-scooters legal.
“The department will need to be satisfied that permitting such vehicles on our roads will not give rise to safety concerns, both for the users themselves and for all other road users including cyclists, pedestrians and motorists,” a Department of Transport told Pricewatch recently.
There have been other voices of concern. Earlier this month, Fianna Fáil transport spokesman Robert Troy called for regulations on the use of e-scooters describing their legality as “confusing”.
He pointed out while they are now illegal “more than 2,000 electric scooters are now regularly travelling the roads of Dublin city” without the guards appearing overly concerned by their presence.
He pointed out that the scooters could travel at speeds from 30km to 50km and expressed alarm at YouTube videos showing “how easy it is to remove a speed limiter”. He added that it made “no sense for a motorised scooter to be able to travel faster than a car in some areas of Dublin city centre and the fact that they are currently being used on footpaths and on busy pedestrian streets is even more frightening”.
He said that while it was “preferable to encourage these kind of devices over cars and buses . . . we cannot have a situation where there is a flood of electric scooters on the streets without any kind of regulations”.
Troy acknowledged that Ross was looking into it but said that “he is, once again, behind the curve”.
To be fair to Ross he is not that far behind the curve and Ireland is not the only country trying to come to terms with the scooter’s somewhat unexpected popularity.
Last week the British government announced it was to review legislation with a view to lifting a ban on e-scooters. As in Ireland e-scooters are classed as motor vehicles and are subject to tax, driver licenses and insurance.
It said it was “the biggest regulatory review in a generation” of mobility laws some of which date back to 1835 as it cited figures showing traffic congestion alone cost British taxpayers about £2 billion a year.
Not only is it to review the laws it has offered around €100 million in funding for mobility trials.
“We are at a potentially pivotal moment for the future of transport, with revolutionary technologies creating huge opportunities,” said British transport minister Jesse Norman. “Through this strategy the government aims to take advantage of these innovations.”
The scooter industry in Europe has attracted more than $150 million of investment from venture capital firms over the past year while scooter rental companies including Lime and Bird Rides have raised hundreds of millions of dollars and rolled out in many EU cities.
However, a spokeswoman for the British government said in a statement that there were “no current plans to bring forward legislation to legalise e-scooters” but it marked the start of the process of reviewing policy which could result in overhauled rules.
There are similar stories across Europe particularly.
According to French newspaper Le Parisien, electric scooters and roller skates caused 284 injuries and five deaths in the country in 2017 and were described as “fast, silent and therefore dangerous” by MP Pierre-Henri Dumont who said last year that “the need to legislate is urgent”.
Belgium updated its traffic law in 2007 and gave slow vehicles the same legal status as pedestrians or bikes but the speed of such vehicles was capped at 18km/h and the country is now considering raising e-scooter speed limits to 25km/h.
Germany is also looking at legislating for “light electric vehicles” and is considering setting a maximum speed limit of 20km/h and limiting the power of e-scooter motors to 500 watts. Spanish legislators are looking to ban scooters from footpaths and limiting their speed to 25km/h.
Ciarán Hughes has been watching developments at home and abroad with more interest than most. The mild-mannered middle-aged man set up his business gyrowheel.ie in 2015. Initially he sold electric unicycles.
“They were a personal interest of mine and people were very curious and always asking me where they could get them,” he says. “So I decided to start selling them.”
But while people may have been interested in the futuristic wheels, they appeared reluctant to buy them so Hughes also started selling scooters.
“Only late last year did sales take off,” he says.
And why does he think sales did take off?
“Pure convenience, time saving and fresh air,” he says. “You can take the scooter from your house to the bus or train rather than having to have a second car. And then at the other end of the journey you can take the scooter to work.”
He says they are as safe as a bicycle.
“Most scooters will do 25km an hour, some will do slightly more but they are safe and it is up to the rider to observe the traffic and other road users. Bear in mind every child seems to have a scooter as a toy at some point in their life and essentially they are not much different. The principle is the same, people are already familiar with using them and that probably explains the popularity of the scooter over the electric unicycle or skateboards or whatever.”
He says his customers are typically in their 40s and 50s.
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan is among his target audience then. While he does not own an e-scooter – “I have a bike so I don’t need one and I was terrible on skateboards as a child and would be a bit nervous” – he thinks they will have “a real role to play” in helping to ease congestion in our cities,
“We certainly should not be banning them from the roads although we do have to get the safety rules right,” he says.”They should not be allowed on footpaths but should be allowed in cycle lanes and it should be illegal to remove the speed limiters.”
“Just because somebody is using something like this inappropriately either on a footpath or going too fast, does not mean they should be banned for everybody else,” Ryan says. “For Ireland to opt out of the e-mobility options would be such a negative approach to take.”