Future Tense

I Almost Died Riding an E-Scooter

Like 99 percent of users, I wasn’t wearing a helmet.

Three bird scooters with helmets hanging from the handlebars.
Bird offers to send free helmets to riders who request them, but it would be better if they came with the scooters. Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty Images

El Ángel de la Independencia is one of the most famous monuments in Mexico City. Situated high upon a victory column, towering over a large multilane roundabout, the golden angel stands with her right leg on the podium, her left leg extended gracefully behind her. Not unlike a person in the act of scooting.

It was while gliding past the angel that I was hit by a car, joining the thousands of people who have ended up in emergency rooms as a result of riding the e-scooter wave.

Neither El Ángel nor I were wearing a helmet.

As someone who covers tech, I should have known better. I’ve read plenty about the danger, havoc, and municipal headaches e-scooters have caused since they first zoomed into cities (uninvited) in 2017. The dock-less ride-share scooters operate by motor and can go more than 15 miles per hour. So far, more than 70 American municipalities are feeling the Bird . From San Fran to St. Louis, cities have been trying to retroactively regulate these beasts—Birds, Limes, Spins, and Grins—by capping speeds, banning them from sidewalks, limiting riders, and asking the companies to remove them from their streets in the meantime. I’ll be honest: I thought these cities were acting like the fun police. “Lighten up, San Francisco,” I thought. “Don’t have a cow.”

The scooters have now descended upon Mexico City, where locals refer to them as patines del diablo, or “devil’s skates.” Mexico saw its first scooter-related fatality in February, when a man was hit by a taxi while riding a Lime.* In the U.S., meanwhile, according to a recent Consumer Reports study, there have been at least four scooter-related fatalities—most recently, a man on a Lime fatally struck by an Uber (a horrific metaphor for tech moving too fast). That same report estimated there have been at least 1,500 scooter-related injuries since 2017, tallied from 110 hospitals and five agencies across 47 cities, though this is likely an underestimation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is about to wrap up a study into how (and how badly) riders are hurting themselves—and surprise, surprise, less than 1 percent of us are wearing helmets.

Of course, as a 26-year-old who longed for a Razor scooter as a child, I wanted to mount an e-scooter the second I saw one here in Mexico City. I was slow to do so, but the scooters were fast—once I did I was hooked. There are three e-scooter brands lighting up Mexico’s streets with their sick underboard lights, and I won’t tell you which one it was. But I was singing their praises, plus those of the sharing economy. I rode them every day for nine days straight, but deep down, I saw disaster coming—figuratively, if not literally.

It was on my way back from a morning taco de canasta, scooting legally in the bike lane, that I was broadsided by a white car that decided to turn right, through my lane, without looking, and drive off. I remember nothing except seeing the car at the last second, screaming, wondering if I was about to die, and really hoping I wouldn’t. I was stupidly lucky: I ended up with an ER visit, a concussion, a neck injury, and some nasty lacerations that remind me why knee and elbow pads exist, but that’s far less than what others have experienced (and I paid far less than what I would have paid for the ER visit in the U.S., too). A local woman riding behind me, also not wearing a helmet, stopped to help, and later wrote in an email that “you flew like a feather and you hit the road as a stone.” I don’t know what that means, but I do know one thing: I should have been wearing a fucking helmet.

Scooters are easy to come by in Mexico City, but helmets are not. Some scooter companies’ apps encourage users to wear a helmet (mine did not) or require them to undergo an “in-app tutorial” on helmet safety before their first use (nope).

Scooter companies do profess an interest, and something of an investment, in safety. For instance, Bird offers to send free helmets to riders who request them (shipping not included!). But even if a company sends out free helmets, “last mile” scooter rides are often conducted on a whim—unless you’re walking around with a helmet on you at all times (who among us?), it’s unlikely the mailed helmet will do much good. The Consumer Reports study, in which few reported injuries involved helmets, suggests that low helmet use is a result of ride sharing’s flash decision-making. Another study, it notes, “found 90 percent of cyclists wore helmets when riding their personal bikes; only 20 percent of bike share riders did the same.”

And while the scooter companies say they care about safety, proffering free helmets and in-app tutorials, they are actually lobbying for the opposite—for changing the rules so that people don’t have to wear helmets, so that more idiots like me can use their products on a taco-fueled whim. California recently passed a law allowing people over 18 to ride e-scooters without helmets—sponsored by Bird. According to Bike Portland, when a similar bill was debated in February in Oregon, also backed by scooter companies, lawmakers “scolded” the scooter reps in attendance. As committee co-chairwoman Rep. Caddy McKeown put it: “You say you’ve been providing helmets for people to use, which implies to me you understand the danger and the possible risk of riding these vehicles. And I applaud you for that; but I also hear you saying you’d prefer we not require it. What I’m hearing seems to be a bit counter-intuitive from a safety perspective.” The bill does not appear to be proceeding.

In spite of its willingness to mail free helmets, Bird doesn’t even seem to be putting the helmets in its own materials. According to a new study, conducted by researchers affiliated with the University of California, Bird’s Instagram rarely shows users with protective gear, sending the message “that Bird approves of customers riding without a helmet.” According to their analysis of 300 posts, only 6.17 percent contained people wearing protective gear. But “safety first,” right?

Let’s be real. Most people are only going to wear helmets if it’s easy or mandatory. What could this look like? Scooter companies could attach a helmet to every scooter, with disposable liners stocked in the poles, to be restocked by their nightly chargers. These helmets would have to have a limited life span, but this could again be addressed by the fact that the scooters are collected each night—once a helmet reaches its marked expiry date, a charger could replace it with stock provided by the company (ditto when they inevitably get stolen). Sharing helmets still too gross for you? Well, so are head injuries. This would not be the first example of a company using communal helmets: In Melbourne, Australia, where riding a bike without a helmet is illegal, each Bike Share bike comes with a branded helmet that must be left with the bike.

Whether they attach helmets or not, scooter companies could also stop saying “wear a helmet” and make helmets a requirement. The in-app safety tutorial could be taken a step further by requiring users to take a selfie wearing a helmet—the scooter’s or their own—before unlocking the scooter (there is already a similar functionality in some apps, for uploading driver’s licenses or for concluding a ride). Sure, some people will take the helmet off straight away, but at least the company will have done its due diligence. It’s unlikely scooter companies will go for self-enforced mandatory usage, especially given their history of lobbying against helmet laws—it’s not in scooter companies’ financial interests to make their product prohibitively hard to use. But with helmets attached, there would be no barrier.

I’ve been rather flippant with friends about what happened because it’s the only way I know how to deal. It’s laughable that you’d get seriously injured scooting. But this isn’t particularly funny. People are always going to be idiots, yes, but idiot people are currently getting seriously injured, in ways that might have been prevented, because tech companies flippantly dumped their product all over cities, without an adequate helmet solution. Facebook’s “move fast and break things” mantra can be applied to many tech companies, but in the case of e-scooters, it might just be “move fast and break skulls.”

Correction, March 15, 2019: This article originally misidentified the brand of scooter involved with Mexico’s first scooter-related fatality. It was a Lime, not a Grin. It also incorrectly stated that “angry” locals call the scooters patines del diablo, or “devil’s skates.” That name is used by everyone, not just scooter skeptics.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.