The CDC is studying the rise in e-scooter injuries for the first time as start-ups expand to more cities

Key Points
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has launched the first-ever study of electric scooter accidents at the request of Austin Public Health and the Austin Transportation Department.
  • So far, data has shown many accidents don't involve other vehicles and most riders involved in accidents weren't wearing helmets at the time.
  • E-scooter companies like Bird and Lime say they support the CDC study.
A man rides an electric scooter Lime-S from the bike sharing service company 'Lime.'
Chesnot | Getty Images

A victim calls them little weapons.

An emergency room doctor describes it as disruptive technology.

They're talking about the electric scooters, and the growing industry of scooter-sharing start-ups like Lime and Bird that are popping up in cities around the country. Dockless scooter companies already operate in more than 100 cities in the U.S. and at least a half a dozen foreign countries.

"You get this feeling of nostalgia, like you're a kid again and nothing matters," said Pamela Tick, 26, who was seriously injured in a scooter accident in Austin, Texas.

But nostalgia has given way to today's reality.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has launched the first-ever study of electric scooter accidents at the request of Austin Public Health and the Austin Transportation Department.

"We want to identify the risk factors for those who get injured, how severe the injuries are and why they're getting hurt," said Jeff Taylor, manager of the Epidemiology and Disease Surveillance Unit with Austin Public Health.

Taylor, who is overseeing the investigation, is working with three CDC epidemiologists to examine severe injuries that occurred in Austin from September to November 2018.

He said both agencies have completed collecting data and are currently in the process of summarizing various reports.

"There's a perception that scooter-related injuries occur at night. Well that's not true," Taylor said. "Our study will show they occur during all times of the day. People may also perceive there's typically a car involved. But our study finds most of the time the rider may hit a bump in the road or they simply lose their balance."

CNBC spoke with officials at trauma centers in Austin, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington D.C. All reported a rise in scooter-related injuries.

The University of San Diego Medical Center has been tracking severe injuries admitted to its trauma center since September 2017. Dr. Leslie Kobayashi, associate professor of surgery, said the center has admitted 42 patients for e-scooter related injuries in the past year.

The data reveals that 98 percent of patients were not wearing a helmet. Forty-eight percent had a blood alcohol level above the legal limit for intoxication and 52 percent tested for an illicit substance.

UCLA researchers examined data from the university's medical center in Santa Monica and Ronald Reagan Medical Center between September 2017 and August 2018.

The data shows 249 people were admitted to their emergency rooms with electric scooter injuries. The majority of the injuries were from falls.

Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas has been tracking injuries on scooters since they were introduced to the Austin market in May 2018. They found 66 severe traumas including 19 head injuries, 38 orthopedic injuries and 13 facial injuries.

"We have 11 doctor shifts a day and most of the doctors tell me it's hard to go a whole shift without seeing at least one scooter injury," said Dr. Christopher Ziebell, emergency department medical director at DSMC-UT.

Pamela Tick was one of them.

Tick, a model and DJ, and her husband were visiting Austin in February when she landed in the emergency room.

After brunch, the couple decided to take electric scooters around to check out the city.

"Ryan was in front of me and every block or two he'd ask, 'You OK? You OK?' I was having a great time. There were no red flags."

Tick said she was going 10 to 15 miles per hour when she made a right turn and hit a pot hole.

"My front wheel got stuck in a really deep pot hole and couldn't make it out," Tick said. "The entire scooter and myself fell forward and smacked the concrete. When I woke up I tasted blood, my lip was split open and literally hanging above my teeth. I was bleeding really, really badly."

Tick was treated at UT with stitches and posted photos from her accident on Instagram.

"I shared my scars with the world and I was mesmerized by the amount of people who said they too had been involved in a scooter crash."

Tick said she was riding without a helmet in a Jump scooter, which is owned by Uber.

Pamela Tick was injured while riding an e-scooter.
Pamela Tick

An Uber spokesperson told CNBC the company has reached out to Tick and has removed the scooter from their Jump fleet as a precaution.

Two top scooter companies, Bird and Lime, said they support the CDC study.

"We're taking this issue seriously. We're doing all that we can to work with cities, education and technology to address these accidents and it's encouraging the medical community is as well," a Lime spokesperson said in a statement. "We absolutely support the CDC study and would love to contribute in any way through data sharing."

"I've had a few conversations with the CDC researchers and I'm very encouraged," said Bird's safety policy director Paul Steely White. "People will always make mistakes on the road, but it's not about perfecting human behavior. It's about designing streets so when people make mistakes those mistakes aren't fatal."

In an email, the CDC spokersperson said its data for deaths and injuries from e-Scooters is incomplete.

"The CDC, in collaboration with our state and local partners, is developing and evaluating methods to find and count the number of injuries related to dockless electric scooters," the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, beginning this week, thousands of people are going to descend on Austin for SXSW, a collection of music, film and tech conferences.

Many of them are going to ride electric scooters.

"I hope they're responsible about their use of the scooter," Taylor said. "Scooter riders may have to be more prudent this week and I'd advise them to wear a helmet."

Taylor said the CDC's investigation has already revealed fewer than 1 percent of riders wore helmets.

The CDC is preparing to release its findings and recommendations this spring.

"My expectation is that the numbers they come up with are going to be pretty significantly underestimating the real problem," Ziebell said. "The real scope of the problem is going to be an order of magnitude bigger than what the CDC comes up with."

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