By JASON CHUNG
While spending time in Austin, TX over the holiday break, I finally took the plunge and tried out an electric scooter. Through my Uber app, my phone’s GPS located a suitable vehicle, made me agree to an entirely too long User Agreement and charged my VISA $1.00 for the first five minutes (and $0.15/minute after that).
It was fun. It was economical. It solved my dilemma of how to get around relatively expediently without a car. It was also a potential death trap.
With the capability of reaching up to 20 mph and provided without training, helmets or health insurance, electric scooter companies appear comfortable extolling the virtues of their “disruption” regardless of potential negative health and safety externalities. And it’s not as if these negative effects are merely speculation – though statistical injury data is still sparse given the newness of this type of transportation service, interviews with emergency room physicians show that “[i]njuries are coming fast and furious” with injuries ranging from broken bones, lacerations, blunt head trauma and even death.
The conduct of electric scooter companies betrays the elitist singlemindedness of some of the tech community. When faced with legitimate public health and safety concerns, electric scooter companies haven’t taken a step back and re-examined their approach. Instead, relying on the tried and true appeal to caveat emptor or “buyer beware”, electric scooter companies appear content to download public health and safety risks to other actors, such as their customers, health systems and governments, as long as they keep getting funding and expanding.
Electric scooter companies have long been perfectly aware that risks of injury are real and serious. That’s why Section 15 of Bird’s User Agreement specifically requires riders to “fully release, indemnify, and hold harmless Bird” and its related stakeholders for claims, including injury to the rider or others, for operating one of their e-scooters.
Yet, despite known injuries caused by their product, electric scooter companies continue to push ahead with aggressive expansion – often without city approval. Indeed, Bird’s strategy of simply dumping off a bunch of electric scooters in major cities and simply paying off resulting fines led regulatory pushback from cities with bans resulting in Nashville, Austin and San Francisco. These bans have since been rescinded in favor of a system of caps on scooters and fledgling regulatory oversight.
Further, electric scooter companies have taken on even existing safety legislation meant to protect people. On September 19, 2018, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill No. 2989 which effectively removed the mandatory helmet rule for most people operating “motorized scooters” by restricting mandatory helmet laws to only those “under 18 years of age”. The bill’s sponsor? Bird, who did this despite expressly recognizing that helmets are important for public safety. Section 3.3 of their own User Agreement, Bird says that it “recommends that all Riders wear a… approved helmet that has been properly sized, fitted and fastened…”
In fact, Bird sought to go even further in legislation by carving out a separate legal definition for electric scooters so that they could also engage in a host of other currently prohibited behaviors such as operating on sidewalks, go even faster and not require possession of a valid driver’s license as required by current California law.
At some point, the behavior of Bird and its tech peers must be viewed as more than misguided and called out for what it really is – narcissistic innovation. With a wave of a magic “buyer beware” wand, they believe that consumers should gladly accept any and all resulting dangers, up to and including death. Public safety measures that threaten their bottom line, like helmets, should be killed for the sake of their latest “disruption”.
Shamefully, much of the mainstream, Millennial-driven media has been rather misguided on the current implementation of electric scooters. Largely focusing on the “sustainability” and “ingenuity” provided by electric scooters, they’ve failed to critically consider whether the companies behind these products are responsible or well-regulated enough to balance utility with safety. Instead, they’ve acted as cheerleaders for an unproven product that still remains untested and little known by local, state and national governments, safety regulators and health officials.
I’m not scared of tech. Regardless of my frequent calls to regulate health data better, I fully admit to being a hypocrite on the subject by giving up potentially sensitive data to companies like Fitbit and Google in exchange for products that make my life marginally easier. But problems posed by health data are still, thankfully, mostly theoretical. Problems posed by Bird, Jump and Lime are very real and current.
They’re real and current enough that news has hit that the CDC is employing epidemiologists to study e-scooter injuries like a “disease outbreak” in conjunction with the Austin Public Health Department. While the CDC measures the harms caused by e-scooters, the time has come for politicians and safety regulators such as the NHTSA to step in and enforce safety standards and fees in this new transportation method instead of parsimoniously creating vehicle categories in which they don’t have to act.
It’s time for consumers and elected officials to stop merely reacting to the tech industry and their penchant for launching narcissistic innovations and get more proactive. Starting in 2019, all levels of government, from Congress to municipalities, should finally debate whether we’re comfortable with a “buyer beware” regime when it comes to launching tech products and services. A regulatory regime which has the mandate and authority to oversee and negotiate with companies launching products in public spaces seems like an obvious suggestion to adopt so that we can obtain greater public accountability from well-funded start-ups currently experimenting on city streets.
The principle of caveat emptor is an ancient one and one that seemingly guides current attitudes in tech. But as tech becomes ever more ubiquitous in our daily lives, it’s an attitude ripe for disruption.
Jason Chung is co-founder of The Deductible.