3 Ed­i­to­rial

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS -

Four wheels bad, two wheels good but not when they’re on the foot­path.

The un­re­solved con­tro­versy over elec­tric scoot­ers has be­come a seething in­dig­na­tion burn-off be­tween those who see them as a pub­lic safety risk and those who, in their thou­sands, are hir­ing and buy­ing them. It’s fast be­com­ing an in­ter­gen­er­a­tional bat­tle­field: the fun-po­lice fo­gies ver­sus green-con­scious youth. Con­found­ingly, the facts are in­con­ve­nient to both sides of the ar­gu­ment. Elec­tric scoot­ers are ex­tremely pop­u­lar, handy and en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly.

But they are a new safety risk. ACC sta­tis­tics tell that story: nearly 150 scooter-re­lated claims in the first two weeks of street-hire com­pany Lime’s launch in Auck­land and Christchurch. With the strong de­mand for scoot­ers, more ac­ci­dents are in­evitable. As they can move at up to 27km/h, where few pedes­tri­ans travel at more than 5km/h, the dan­ger is ob­vi­ous, es­pe­cially to chil­dren and the el­derly, who are less able to leap out of the way of the near-silent ma­chines.

The scoot­ers have no sus­pen­sion to speak of, so rid­ers are at high risk of com­ing a crop­per on un­even sur­faces – and many have. The tech­nol­ogy be­hind them is still evolv­ing, with two re­cent global re­calls of some mod­els for smoul­der-prone bat­ter­ies and dis­in­te­gra­tion risk. Al­ready, there has been a re­ported brake fail­ure here in a pub­lichire scooter. And there’s no reg­u­la­tion re­quir­ing pro­tec­tive equip­ment such as hel­mets.

We could force scoot­ers onto the road as with bikes, but that would only ac­cel­er­ate the ac­ci­dent rate. How­ever brightly coloured, they’re far less vis­i­ble than bi­cy­cles, and even con­fined to the cy­cle lane, their low speeds would frus­trate other road users.

The ideal would be that we all learn to “share”. This is, af­ter all, a pop­u­lar and af­ford­able new way to get peo­ple out of their cars – a goal near the top of the planet’s sur­vival list. Just as driv­ers are legally obliged to share the road with cy­clists, we could oblige pedes­tri­ans to co­op­er­ate and ac­com­mo­date scoot­ers.

The pub­lic back­lash so far – not least from health pro­fes­sion­als – sug­gests this would be a hard sell. It seems only a mat­ter of time be­fore a child is in­jured or killed by an e-scooter, and then what? Yes, cars will al­ways be the No 1 killer on wheels. Yet the ap­palling fact that, in just six days in early Novem­ber, nine peo­ple were killed on New Zealand roads, in­clud­ing chil­dren and a preg­nant woman, is a stark re­minder that no trans­port tragedy is “ac­cept­able”. Lives are pre­cious and must never be traded for con­ve­nience.

There’s no easy so­lu­tion to this dilemma. Cy­cling is an “at your own risk” ac­tiv­ity, but scoot­ers on footpaths en­dan­ger other foot­path users. It’s pos­si­ble the Auck­land Coun­cil will limit the per­mit­ted range of street hires af­ter Lime’s three-month pro­ba­tion is up. But other cities, in­clud­ing Welling­ton, are let­ting them in, and they have a grow­ing fan club. Ev­ery city wants to be seen as hip, green and youth-fo­cused – sans the back­lash fol­low­ing ac­ci­dents.

The Lime ex­per­i­ment comes as a pe­ti­tion to al­low chil­dren un­der 12 to ride bikes on the foot­path gath­ers mo­men­tum. Save for the com­pul­sory bike hel­mets, this pro­posal car­ries a sim­i­lar risk pro­file to scoot­ers. Chil­dren may be less adept at, or con­sid­er­ate about, keep­ing a safety mar­gin around pedes­tri­ans.

Cy­cles on footpaths also carry the risk that cars emerg­ing from drive­ways will strike them – al­ready this year a refugee child died in Auck­land when his bike was struck by an emerg­ing car as he took to the foot­path while ap­proach­ing a busy in­ter­sec­tion.

For the most part, how­ever, chil­dren would be safer cy­cling on footpaths than roads. As for the risk to pedes­tri­ans, many would ar­gue chil­dren’s safety takes pri­or­ity. Oth­ers would claim the green value of e-scoot­ers also out­weighs

risks to walk­ers.

One thing is cer­tain: this is yet an­other in­stance of the on­rush of new tech­nol­ogy, ready or not. Eth­i­cal and safety con­sid­er­a­tions will chal­lenge us over drones, driver­less cars and what­ever comes next. For ev­ery jeremiad of safety warn­ings, there’ll be a right­eous ca­coph­ony about the pub­lic good re­gard­ing the en­vi­ron­ment.

We need to fo­cus on a work­ing con­sen­sus. And do it well be­fore the Jet­sons’ fly­ing car is upon us.

For ev­ery safety warn­ing, there’ll be a right­eous ca­coph­ony re­gard­ing the en­vi­ron­ment.

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