RIO DE JANEIRO – Electric scooters have been in Brazil for almost a year and a number of people have been trying them out as a solution to the chaotic traffic situation in big cities like Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro.
However, due to the lack of regulation and the way people have been using them, they’ve brought with them a new set of serious safety problems.
Between August 2018 and the end of last year, electric scooters began appearing in Brazilian cities and, although at first they were looked on as an oddity, soon they had become commonplace at Rio’s Copacabana Beach and on Avenida Paulista, Sao Paulo’s financial district.
Mauricio Vieira, 45, began using a scooter last December when he came to Rio as a convenient transport method due to its “speed and mobility,” although he added that “you have to go carefully because it’s a bit dangerous.”
What is certain is that the scooter was a big surprise both for officials who must regulate its use as well as for those who began using them to travel around the city at their own speed and, in the vast majority of cases, without wearing a helmet.
Paulo Silva, a traumatologist who works at Sao Lucas Hospital in Copacabana, told EFE that although no firm regulations for scooters exist, they are “not a safe means of transport.”
At the hospital where he works, doctors attend to an average of 80 people injured in accidents involving scooters each month and, although the majority of them are sprains and bruises, some people also suffer much more serious injuries such as facial and head trauma in assorted mishaps.
Officials at 9 de Julio Hospital, near Avenida Paulista, also told EFE that over the past month they had treated an average of 10 electric scooter accident victims every weekend, with two of those 40-plus victims suffering serious injuries.
Silva said that the main causes of the injuries are accidents with cars or motorcycles and falls due to poorly maintained streets, combined with users’ failing to use caution and not using helmets.
After 10 months with no laws regulating them in two of Latin America’s most ferocious “asphalt jungles,” the main actors involved with scooters have begun to try to put the brakes on their unrestricted use.
In Rio de Janeiro, for instance, one of the companies offering scooter rentals, Tembici, decided last month to suspend that service temporarily to study the “specifics of traffic and the public roadways” with an eye toward being able to guarantee users’ safety.
The firm told EFE that scooters are “a model of sustainable mobility” but it acknowledged that currently “it’s not safe” to use them.
Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city with some 20 million residents, has been the first city in the country to issue a specific decree regulating this form of transportation.
It’s a controversial legal framework that enters into force on May 29 and has been questioned by the main company that must abide by it.
The text of the measure prohibits people operating scooters from driving on the sidewalks, limits their use to paved bicycle lanes and sets the speed limit for them at 40 kilometers (25 miles) per hour.
“(The scooter) can help us greatly on the question of urban mobility ... provided that (it’s used) within the law,” Sao Paulo’s councilor for mobility and transportation, Edson Caram, told EFE.
The new regulation also prohibits transporting loads, passengers or animals on them and obligates users to wear helmets.
The Rio de Janeiro City Hall told EFE that it is also working on preparing a new regulation “with the aim of minimizing accident risks.”
The head of Grow, the largest electric scooter rental company in Brazil, Marcelo Loureiro, told EFE that the announcement of the decree has already affected business. “We had a drop of 25 percent in our number of (trip rentals),” he said.
Perhaps the most unusual thing about the regulation is the fact that all fines, which range from $25 to $5,000, are applicable only to the scooter companies and not to the users, even in the case of not wearing a helmet or exceeding the speed limit.
On that subject, Caram said that the companies will probably simply transfer the fines to the users who are at fault “exactly like car rental companies do.”
Loureiro did not rule out that possibility, but he admitted that he does not have a plan for that since the firm is in the middle of legal proceedings against the Sao Paulo City Hall: “The decision has not been made because we believe that there’s going to be a change” in the city regulations, he said.