It has not taken very long for electric scooters to move into the mainstream in the UAE.
Neighbourhoods across the country are full with people making short journeys on near silent scooters. As with several other aspects of our prototypical post-pandemic life, the pace of change has been remarkable and almost unstoppable.
A little over two years ago, when Abu Dhabi began trialling e-scooters for rent in certain areas of the city, most of us could only imagine a day when battery bikes might become commonplace on our roads. That day arrived very quickly, with privately owned electric scooters now a ubiquitous presence on streets around the nation.
E-scooters bring many advantages with them, potentially reducing congestion and pollution by getting motorists to stop using their cars for short journeys, but they also raise safety issues that demand further attention.
Last year, The National reported that hospitals have treated a number of people after e-scooter accidents.
Medics said that typical injuries ranged from scrapes and bruises to broken bones and that some people had been treated for head traumas. One doctor told us that these injuries were “mostly the result of the rider falling but there have been several cases involving collisions with vehicles.”
Tragically, a child died two weeks after an accident in the Northern Emirates last year involving an e-scooter and another vehicle. Another young person was seriously injured in a similar incident around the same time.
As shocking as these fatal and near-fatal accidents are, the vast majority of journeys undertaken by riders pass without incident, but that should not stop the regulations governing e-scooter usage being assessed.
Earlier this year, the Federal Traffic Council set up a task force to look at safe e-scooter use. The council will act in an advisory capacity and cannot introduce mandatory regulation – that is up to individual emirates – but clearly it is an area that would benefit from regular discussion.
To move forwards, it may help to look back.
Almost a decade ago, when there was a rapid increase in the amount of recreational and commuter cyclists using the roads, we found ourselves at a similar junction, driven by twin tragedies.
Two deaths of cyclists in three months in 2013 prompted a great deal of soul searching about our roads, how we used them and what was the best way ahead.
Ray Nasr was killed by a drunk driver while out on a training ride in September that year, and Medhi Karasane died from head injuries sustained after being struck by a vehicle while out cycling with three friends in November 2013.
At the time of the deaths, another cyclist told The National that car users often did not “see us or respect us”.
Looking back to that time now, it was a febrile, tense period and one that only changed through a combination of education, awareness and development of infrastructure to support cyclists. More cycle paths have been built over the years and the network of lanes and facilities continues to expand and those “them and us” observations have dissipated slowly.
Now, e-scooters need to undertake a similar journey and just as with the presence of more cyclists on the road ten years ago, the more e-scooters that are on the streets, the better, because it forces all road users to actively think about and moderate their behaviour. Familiarity must breed respect rather contempt in this case, too.
There are a few basic measures e-scooter riders should take: helmets should be worn and, preferably, high-visibility clothing. Greater care should be taken in mixed use environments, where pedestrians may be using the same streets. The likelihood of accidents – and again, mercifully, collisions and injuries are the exception rather than the norm – is reduced if e-scooter users are also able to access dedicated paths.
From a regulatory point of view, mandatory speed limits could be set for e-scooters, especially in areas where pedestrians are commonplace – this is happening already in some neighbourhoods – and further awareness campaigns should be initiated to inculcate better habits by every user of the road. Education often proves more effective than regulation and can eventually lead to generational changes in behaviour.
For car drivers, too, the road to safety is a long one and one that often rests with better driver behaviour and a greater sense of personal responsibility. Teaching defensive driving skills may also prove beneficial in initiating long-term change.
But there are, in truth, few instant solutions to develop roads that are as safe as possible. As with other areas of our lives, mitigation and adaptation represent the best way forward for all of us. We can all play a part in creating a safer environment.