DÁIL SPEECH ON ELECTRIC SCOOTERS

I commend Deputy MacSharry on introducing the Road Traffic (Amendment) (Use of Electric Scooters) Bill 2019. Road and traffic safety have to be the cornerstones of all legislation, along with regulation regarding transport vehicles and road traffic structures and systems. We have all noticed the growing popularity of e-scooters and electric-powered bicycles in many cities across Europe, including in our capital city and in other towns. The development of personalised powered transport vehicles in recent years by manufacturers and distributors like the Lime Company is reminiscent of the roll-out of Airbnb and Uber. Pedestrians, cyclists and drivers, however, are increasingly anxious that all the safety implications of powered scooters and bicycles should be closely invigilated by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Road Safety Authority, RSA, to ensure the current unregulated situation would be addressed. In that context, Deputy MacSharry’s Bill is timely and welcome.

Google carries a long list of e-scooter supplies and machines highlighted by companies like Tomtop and iHoverboard with prices ranging from as low as €141.20 to €693.46 and higher for electric scooters. Many of the vehicles can travel at speeds in excess of 50 km/h. Across Europe, hundreds have been involved in crashes, resulting in several deaths. In London last month, the popular TV presenter and YouTuber, Emily Hartridge, was killed when her scooter was struck by a lorry. In Sweden last May – I noted on a visit to Stockholm during the summer that e-scooters are prolific there – a young man was killed in a crash that took place in a bicycle lane. In August, a 92 year old woman was hit and killed by an electric scooter user in Barcelona.

Some regulations have been introduced in several European countries, such as Germany, France, Austria and Switzerland, permitting the use of electric scooters. So far, however, these personalised motor vehicles are illegal here and in the UK. For example, Sweden has banned the use of motorised scooters capable of speeds above 20 km/h. Section 4(1) limits the speed of e-scooters to speeds of up to 25 km/h. Section 3, however, includes the necessity for all electric scooters to be fitted with speed-limitation devices which is a welcome provision for most road users. Section 3(2) and (3) will make it an offence to tamper with such devices.

Most citizens will welcome section 5, the requirement to wear a helmet and section 6, the use of powered personal vehicles to be driven carefully, as well as the sanctions for persons not driving such a vehicle in public without reasonable consideration for other, and perhaps vulnerable, road users, like pedestrians and cyclists. Section 8, which gives the Minister power to make regulations for motorised personal vehicles like scooters and battery bicycles, is also a key aspect of this legislation.

Section 7 is weak, however, because it refers only to the RSA’s power to make guidelines for the safe operation of electric vehicles rather than instructing the agency to implement detailed regulations which the Minister may make.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has tabled an amendment requiring the Road Traffic (Amendment) (Use of Electric Scooters) Bill to be read a second time this day three months from now in order to allow for consideration of the public consultation on powered personal transporters which began on 1 September and concludes on 31 October. The RSA already submitted a report on e-scooters to the Minister on 22 June. It is reported in the media that the RSA report looked at the proliferation and regulation of e-scooters across the EU. Apparently, it had broadly favoured the use of e-scooters but only under strict conditions, including licensing and possible insurance, speed restrictions and visibility. The latter point needs to be addressed in Deputy MacSharry’s Bill. It was also reported that An Garda Síochána and the traffic corps are not in favour of legalising these machines due to the danger to other road users and in light of the appalling road traffic deaths and injuries that have already occurred.

In France, where e-scooters are ubiquitous in cities such as Paris, fines have been introduced for riding electric scooters on footpaths and for the obstructive parking of scooters. Belgium originally had an 18 km/h speed limit for these vehicles but that has been raised to 25 km/h. Copenhagen will be introducing new regulations. Under our Road Traffic Act 1961, e-scooters fall into the category of mechanically-powered vehicles, all of which require insurance, road tax and for the owners or drivers to possess driving licences.

As with all motor or electric vehicles, plans for legislation in this area must address the performance of companies like Lime and Bird which manufacture personalised powered vehicles. Section 4 would be a key requirement for any such vehicles manufactured or imported into Ireland. For many cyclists or drivers, users of e-scooters seem particularly vulnerable on streets or in bicycle lanes. They are moving quite fast and the silhouette of the standing e-scooter user seems less visible than that of a cyclist, while pedestrians generally have the safety of the footpath. Perhaps designers and manufacturers should be required to look at more safe designs to protect the users of e-scooters first of all.

The requirement for helmets in section 5 is crucial given what we know about concussions and head injuries. Deputy MacSharry might also add a section on user visibility on Committee Stage.

The protection of cyclists and pedestrians must be absolutely central to any legislation on these vehicles. The implementation of current road traffic law is patchy. There are many lacunae in the administration of sanctions applied under these laws which also urgently need consolidation. That is why, in the context of the ministerial consultation, we must take the views of the traffic corps and An Garda Síochána most seriously. The Garda has to deal with the unending tragedy on our roads and continuing flouting of traffic laws by a small but significant minority of drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. Up to today, for example, 117 citizens have tragically lost their lives on our roads. While 76 of these deaths were those of drivers and passengers, 21 pedestrians and seven cyclists also died. As usual, the number of motorcyclists with 13 deaths so far this year is also unacceptably high. We know from research by heroic road safety organisations like Promoting Awareness Responsibility and Care, PARC, that this appalling death toll was accompanied, as it has been each year, by several thousand injuries, many of them serious and life-threatening. Looking back over Garda traffic statistics since the turn of this century, one will note the death toll on our roads far exceeds the appalling level of deaths in the northern conflict from 1968 until 1998.

Powered personalised transport seems attractive in terms of offering an alternative to the use of large vehicles, especially where fixed-line public transport is poor. Any proposal to regulate e-scooters and e-bicycles must incorporate road safety as absolutely paramount, however. I am a supporter of Vision Zero, the Swedish originated campaign to eliminate road deaths and injuries. Any legislation like that before us needs to be placed fully in the context of the necessity to implement a Vision Zero approach. Manufacturers could have made cars and trucks much safer for many decades. Until recently, companies such as Toyota, Nissan, Ford, GM, VW and Mercedes chose not to do so, mainly on cost grounds.

Therefore, we must require e-scooter manufacturers and distributors to put safety first and foremost. That is why the proposed speed limits in the Bill are welcome, and as I stated, perhaps they could be lowered on Committee Stage to at most 20 km/h. Also, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport’s final regulations, if any, must incorporate the other safety features of this Bill but also decide where exactly on roads and streets and which roads and streets are suitable for any type of e-scooters and e-powered vehicles.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport’s amendment that approval and development of this Bill should wait until the public consultation is completed also seems a reasonable request. The public has widely different views on these machines. Deputies will recall that the Amárach-“Claire Byrne Live” poll for journal.ieshowed that 46% of people polled believe that the law should not be changed to permit stand-up e-scooters while 41% were in favour. There was also a significant majority in Dublin against change. Obviously, we have listened carefully to the debate. If we decide to support strictly regulated permission for these machines, the safety of pedestrians and cyclists will have to be ensured.

As I said, I would support Deputy Brendan Ryan’s view that, in the ongoing consultation, it would be critical to hear everybody’s views and then we will have an opportunity to have a detailed debate on this Bill in the House.

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