By Brandon Cathcart, EIT

With the emergence of electric scooter pilot programs in Edmonton, Calgary, and other Canadian cities, a new type of transportation is becoming popularized. However, electric scooters initially appear to occupy a gray area in transportation regulation – are they motor vehicles, like cars, or are they more similar to unpowered scooters? Subsequently, should they be allowed on the road or the sidewalk? These are the kinds of questions cities around Canada are answering, and we can understand the reasoning behind their decisions when we look at the safety risks associated with each.

Alberta’s Traffic Safety Act considers electric scooters to be a motor vehicle; however, they also meet the criteria of a miniature vehicle which, under the Traffic Safety Act, would “present a hazard to other highway users because of its novel size or operating characteristics.” Miniature vehicles are not permitted on roadways or their bordering sidewalks in Alberta, and as such electric scooters are, under Alberta legislation, only permitted on private property. In response to this, Calgary and Edmonton have worked with the province and updated their transportation bylaws to allow for rental electric scooters to travel in public spaces. The two cities took different approaches in their legislation, and to begin our discussion of the differences, we should first look at the safety concerns with electric scooters.

A good way to approach electric scooter debates may be to reflect on bicycle legislation and safety. While bicycles are typically non-motorized and can reach higher speeds than electric scooters, they are both forms of personal transportation and aren’t large vehicles. Edmonton legislation requires that bicycles with tires over 50 cm in diameter travel on the roadway with motor vehicles rather than on sidewalks. While to some it may seem safer for a bicycle to travel on the sidewalk, this decision has a basis in improved safety for bicyclists and pedestrians. A 1994 study by Wachtel and Lewiston found that a bicyclist “incurs a risk on the sidewalk 1.8 times as great as on the roadway.” This can be attributed to a few factors, but the primary issues can be traced to what occurs at intersections. Compared to being on the road, a bicyclist on the sidewalk has a greater chance of being obscured from a motorist’s view by parked cars, buildings, shrubbery, or other sidewalk obstructions. Bicycles typically travel at speeds faster than pedestrians, giving motorists less time to react to unexpected bicyclists; similarly, bicyclists cannot stop and turn on a dime as pedestrians do, which makes it more difficult for them to avoid collisions. On the sidewalk, this decreased manoeuvrability also makes it more difficult for cyclists to avoid pedestrians, street lamps, and other sidewalk hazards. Bicyclists on the road are typically more visible to motorists and have less hazards to avoid compared to riding on the sidewalk, leading to less accidents. Or, as the study puts it, “separation of bicycles and motor vehicles leads to blind conflicts.”

While scooters are classified as a motor vehicle, it may feel like they do not belong on a road with cars, trucks, and bicycles as their top speed is only 20 km/h. Many motorists have grievances with bicycles on the roadway, often concerning speeds, and electric scooters would present a similar, and in many cases worse, issue. That being said, the same safety arguments that have bicycles travelling on the road could be applied to electric scooters. A scooter travelling 10 to 15 km/h is still travelling faster than a typical pedestrian, and when crossing an intersection, may become visible to a motor vehicle operator too late for either party to avoid a collision. Because the scooters are being rented, there will be a large number of novice riders. Collisions with sidewalk objects, curbs, and other obstacles are more likely and this raises a classic debate of risk management – on the sidewalk there are more hazards but less severe consequences, whereas the road contains less hazards but more severe consequences.

Back to our pilot cities, Edmonton and Calgary took different approaches to classifying electric scooters. Both cities allow and encourage the scooters to be used on shared pathways and bike lanes which, according to Wachtel and Lewiston, is the ideal solution for bicycle safety. However, Edmonton chose to ban them from sidewalks while Calgary chose to ban them from its roadways. This dichotomy perfectly echoes the debate that many lawmakers, motorists, and pedestrians are having as the electric scooters find their place in our transportation systems.

The emerging hazards and collision risks remain to be seen. Insurers and claims adjusters will need to keep an eye on the legislation and we are here to help with any questions you might have regarding an incident. Contact our Collision Reconstruction team for more information.

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