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The Issues and Laws Surrounding Dockless Bikes and Motorized Scooters in California

You’ve probably noticed those bright-yellow or bright-green bikes recently popping up on the streets of Southern California. Perhaps you’ve even tripped on one of them as they lie on the sidewalk. These are dockless bikes. They don’t require the usual locks or docking stations because they are electronically locked and unlocked using a smartphone app. And now that private companies are renting out these bikes for cheap, they are taking over the streets and sidewalks.

Dockless bicycles – as well as their cousins, dockless scooters – are undeniably convenient. For as low as $1 paid via the app, a user can unlock a two-wheeler, ride it, then just leave it at any point in the city. But despite the convenience of this bike-share system, people are complaining. Dockless bikes and scooters seem to invite safety issues, and the accidents they are involved in aren’t always minor.

The History & Development Of Dockless


The earliest versions of dockless two-wheelers were actually low-tech: they were regular for-rent bikes that had combination locks. You would call the vendor to get the lock’s combination, and then call them again to say where you parked and locked the bike after you were done. In 1998, the German company Deutsche Bahn changed all this when they introduced digital, automatic locks. Naturally, the technology caught the world’s attention.

China was one of the countries that first embraced for-profit digital bike-sharing. Dozens of startups in the country have entered this arena, helping improve the technology. But at the same time, the system has also proved troublesom. The aggressive rise of dockless bikes created more public infrastructure needs for cyclists. Companies also couldn’t keep up with fleet maintenance, resulting in bikes breaking down and cluttering public spaces in huge piles.

As the system made its way to the US, it also encountered some business issues. It was criticized as a rogue system, largely because dockless bike operators distributed their bicycles without permission from or early warning to city governments. This meant cities lacked the physical infrastructure and regulations to ensure the safety of dockless bike-sharing.

Despite this, the system spread across the country. In late 2017, dockless bikes arrived in Southern California, brought on by companies such as Ofo, LimeBike, and Spin. Dockless scooters were also launched by pioneer companies such as Bird. All in all, these modern two-wheelers have gained thousands of trips within a few months of their introduction in the region.

Unfortunately, like other US cities, SoCal metros weren’t prepared regulations-wise for the instant popularity of dockless systems. It has been only in the past few months that government entities have started discussing rules for these free-floating two-wheelers. In the meantime, numerous bikes and scooters are now whizzing across and strewn about in neighborhoods, inviting accidents more serious than tripping.

Safety Issues & Complaints Around Dockless Bikes And Scooters


Clutter

Probably the most common complaint around dockless scooters and bikes is clutter. Many have been dropped off in the middle of a sidewalk, on private property, and even in front of doorways. This careless parking behavior not only creates a messy sight but it also poses tripping hazards for pedestrians.

Pedestrian Collisions & Head Injuries

Beyond the nuisance, however, dockless vehicles have shown potential for real danger. Though bikes and scooters are not allowed on California sidewalks, many riders zipp past pedestrians on city footpaths, risking collisions. In addition, numerous dockless riders ride without helmets, increasing their risk for serious head injuries. There are also concerns of users being allowed to ride while drunk.

Wearing helmets is mandatory for scooter riders in California and those under 18. In certain areas like the city of El Cerrito and Bidwell Park in Chico, helmets are required for everyone. Some dockless ride companies have implemented their own policies encouraging helmet use by their customers. Likewise, it is illegal in the state to ride a bicycle or motorized scooter while intoxicated.

Still, the dockless bike-sharing system seems to provide enough leeway for irresponsible riders to roam the streets. As newspapers and magazines have noted, this system is prone to abuse.

Cut Brake Cables

Careless riders aren’t the only ones endangering themselves and the people around them. In San Diego, just a few months after dockless bikes were launched, users have complained of bicycle brake cables being cut by vandals – a clear risk for unaware riders.

This form of vandalism has also been observed in Seattle, where bike-share companies are working with authorities to stop this dangerous trend.

Reported Dockless Bike & Motorized Scooter Accidents

While governments and law enforcement are trying to catch up with the dockless phenomenon, a number of accidents have already involved these modern vehicles. These are only some of the reported incidents:

  • In June this year, the California Highway Patrol said a woman sustained moderate injuries after crashing on her Lime scooter. She was arrested on suspicion of driving the scooter while intoxicated.
  • A woman sustained multiple skull fractures while her 11-year-old daughter suffered a ruptured spleen after their motorized scooter crashed in Mission Beach. Neither of them was wearing helmets while riding.
  • Just last week, a man in Indianapolis broke a facial bone when he hit a pothole and flew off his Bird scooter. He also wasn’t wearing a helmet.
  • Similarly, in Dallas, a woman was transported to the emergency room after falling forward on her rental scooter while encountering trolley tracks.
  • A devastating accident also occurred in Nashville involving two women who were each riding a Bird scooter without helmet. They were struck by a car and hospitalized in critical condition.
  • In Seattle, at least five collisions involving bike-share have been reported this year.
  • In Santa Monica, rental scooter accidents have included a broken arm and a severe head injury.


It is clear that the safety risks around bicycles and scooters are not mere trifles. Injuries involving these two-wheelers can be very costly or even life-threatening – including traumatic brain injury, severe fractures, amputations, and organ damage. The dockless bike-sharing system does not eliminate these risks at all.

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