Local emergency rooms are treating broken bones and head trauma due to crashes

By Gary Walker

A tangle of scooters awaits riders on Ocean Avenue | Photo by Nicole Elizabeth Payne

Broken bones and head trauma, with only 5% of patients wearing helmets, are among the serious injuries documented by a UCLA Medical Center study of electric scooter riders seeking emergency room treatment in Westwood and Santa Monica — findings that support anecdotal reports by local doctors and lawyers that scooter injuries have become an ongoing problem.

The UCLA study published Jan. 25 in the peer-reviewed medical research journal JAMA Network Open accounts for 249 patients treated for scooter-related injuries at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica and UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center between Sept. 1, 2017, and Aug. 31, 2018. The vast majority of patients had been riding scooters, but 11 were pedestrians hit by a scooter, five had tripped over a parked scooter, and five had been attempting to lift or carry a scooter not in use.

The average age of the patients was 33, 10.8% were younger than 18, and 4.8% had a blood alcohol level higher than 0.05 or were “perceived to be intoxicated by a physician,” according to the study.

“Injuries associated with standing electric scooter use are a new phenomenon and vary in severity. In this study, helmet use was low, and a significant subset of injuries occurred in patients younger than 18 years old, the minimum age permitted by private scooter company regulations. These findings inform public policy regarding standing electric scooter use,” concludes a team of researchers led by UCLA’s Dr. Tarak Trivedi.

These findings mirror the kinds of scooter-related injuries personally witnessed by Dr. Wally Ghurabi, medical director of the emergency department at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica.

“Two to three a day is not uncommon in our emergency room. We’re seeing a lot of bone fractures in hips and knees, but the ones that distress most ER docs are the head injuries,” Ghurabi lamented in an interview with The Argonaut in November, after the close of the study period.

“Doctors are all for new transportation devices that can improve our environment and we welcome these news devices,” Ghurabi said, “but our message is safety first. And that means wearing a helmet.”

Dr. Samuel Torbati, medical director of the emergency department at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in West L.A., says he has also compiled electric scooter injury data but is not yet able to share it because results are pending peer review ahead of medical journal publication.

Anecdotally, Torbati said he’s seeing multiple instances of head injuries and broken bones related to use of electric scooters.

“People are riding them while distracted, carrying objects and under the influence of alcohol,” he noted. “And this can lead to serious head and facial injuries.”

Electric scooter operators have cautioned that the study does not speak to the number of riders being injured or offer comparison to injury rates for motorcycles and cars.

“The number of injuries reported would amount to a fraction of one percent of the total number of e-scooter rides,” Paul Steely White, director of safety policy and advocacy for Bird, told online news platform The Verge. A spokesperson for competitor Lime added that the company has distributed some 250,000 free helmets to riders. Bird also distributes free helmets to riders who request them.

Scooter operators advise riders to wear a helmet, and last year Santa Monica police had been issuing tickets to enforce a city helmet law. However, a new statewide law that went into effect this year prohibits California municipalities from requiring adult riders to use helmets. A spokesman for Bird said the company supported that legislation in order to ensure more consistent rules for riders.

Questions of legal liability in scooter crashes are still evolving, but Santa Monica personal injury attorney Catherine Lerer believes the companies that operate scooter fleets as well as the individual who causes a crash should share responsibility.

“My position is they are liable as well. It is entirely foreseeable that these accidents could happen, and they are not adequately enforcing the rules on them,” asserted Lerer, who represents multiple clients who were injured while riding scooters and pedestrians who were struck by scooter riders.

Lerer joined Santa Monica attorney Jeffery Costell in filing a class action lawsuit against Bird Rides Inc. and Lime on Oct. 19.

Scooters are “often not well-maintained and malfunction at an alarming rate. Brakes are failing and the throttle is sticking,” Lerer said. “These companies dropped these scooters [on the street] with very little regulations governing them, and no one was familiar with the rules that apply to them. … They know that it’s safer [for riders] to wear a helmet, but these scooter companies are putting profit over liability simply to increase ridership, and I think that it’s outrageous and disgusting.”