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Bird scooters: Legitimate methods of urban transportation or instruments of mayhem?

Due to the drastic increase of the number of scooters, as well as legitimate concerns for public safety, Raleigh City Council scrambled to propose new regulations to restrict the use of electric scooters while providing protections for pedestrians and motorists.

Photo by Mr. T in DC (Flickr).

In July, flocks of electric scooters were unleashed upon the streets—and sidewalks—of Raleigh.  Holding fast to the old saying, “It is better to ask forgiveness than permission,” Bird, the company behind the majority of these electric scooters, released nearly 150 scooters overnight.  In doing so, Bird failed to first obtain the approvalof Raleigh’s city council, ruffling the feathers of several local lawmakers.  Since then, the amount of scooters in the city have increased dramatically, with Bird owning more than 1,100, and Lime, a rival electric scooter company, owning more than 200.

 

Due to the drastic increase of the number of scooters, as well as legitimate concerns for public safety, Raleigh City Council scrambled to propose new regulations to restrict the use of electric scooters while providing protections for pedestrians and motorists.  According to one poll, 76% of Raleigh residents agreed that Bird scooters should have restrictions, with 24% believing restrictions on these scooters would not be necessary.  Therefore, the city council required regulations to be set in place, demanding Bird’s compliance under penalty of being permanently banned.

 

The electric scooters are part of an initiative to offer “affordable and reliable transportation option[s] to communities everywhere.”  Users can unlock the scooters by using a mobile app and by agreeing to several terms and conditions set forth by Bird.  Users are then charged $1 for the first minute of the ride, and a mere 15 cents for every minute after that.  The scooters can travel at speeds up to 15 miles per hour, making them convenient modes of city transportation for some, but extreme nuisances for others.  In fact, they have already been banned in many cities for creating hazardous conditions.  In other cities, including Raleigh, concerned and annoyed citizens have taken matters into their own hands by waging a sort of “guerilla war” against Bird by vandalizing and hiding the scooters.

 

After careful deliberation, Bird scooters were allowed to fly another day.

 

On October 16, Raleigh City Council met to decidethe fate of Bird scooters.  Four distinct plans were carefully considered at the meeting.  Under the first option, Bird (and Lime) would be permitted to operate within the city under certain regulations until the end of July 2019, at which time the companies would be invited to offer proposals to the city council, with only the best being offered operating permits.  The second option was to direct city staff to solicit proposals immediately, choosing only the companies that were the most advantageous and safe.  Additionally, city council members considered issuing a “cease and desist” letter to the electric scooter companies, allowing them to return only after regulations had been formally adopted.  Finally, the city council considered issuing a total, permanent ban on all electric scooters.

 

After careful deliberation, Bird scooters were allowed to fly another day.  Rather than ban the electric scooters outright, Raleigh City Council decided to merely clip the wings of Bird and other similar companies by requiring them to abide by new regulations, which will soon be set in to place by the city council.  The proposed regulations would charge companies a set encroachment fee per scooter placed within the city.  Furthermore, each scooter would need to be equipped with a sign reminding all riders that there is to be “no riding on sidewalks.”  The scooters would need to be removed from sidewalks by 10:00 p.m., and they would not be allowed to remain in loading zones or crosswalks.

 

Since Bird scooters landed in Raleigh, Wake County EMS has responded to over twenty-two serious crashesrelated to misuse of the scooters.  In addition, police have issued at least two citationsto riders, as well as at least 1 DWI. Concerned about the negligence of many riders, combined with misuse of these scooters in general, Raleigh City Council has also drafted several safety regulationsto protect pedestrians, motorists, and property.  Companies, such as Bird and Lime, will be held financially responsible for any damage caused by their scooters, including property damage, personal injury, and even death.  These companies would also be responsible for reimbursing the city for repair and maintenance costs associated with scooter use and misuse.  Finally, these companies could be held liable for any legal fees or other penalties incurred in actions related to their scooters, according to the new regulations.

 

Under North Carolina law, these scooters almost certainly would be defined as “vehicles.” 

 

The long-term fate of electric scooters in Raleigh will likely hinge on how this particular mode of transportation is to be defined under North Carolina’s motor vehicle law.  Under N.C.G.S. § 20-4.01(49), a “vehicle” is defined as any “device . . . by which any person or property . . . may be transported . . . upon a highway.”  Excepted from this definition are devices that can only be moved via human power, as well as devices used to transport a person with a mobility impairment. Bird scooters likely do not fall under either exception, as they are electric and therefore not dependent upon human power, nor do they qualify as “mobility enhancement” devices, a classification typically reserved for motorized wheelchairs.  Under North Carolina law, these scooters almost certainlywould be defined as “vehicles.”

 

This classification is important, because under the motor vehicle law of North Carolina, all vehicles must be registeredwith the DMV before they are eligible to be driven on public streets.  As vehicles, they could likely not be ridden on sidewalks or greenways.  Riders would be required to have a valid driver’s license and be over age sixteen.

 

According to Bird’s company policy, riders must be over the age of eighteen to rent a scooter, and they must also have a valid driver’s license.  Through a warning on the app, Bird also recommends that riders wear helmets, even offering to ship helmets to future riders.  In these regards, Bird’s policies exceed what is required by state law.

 

Many believe that electric scooters, like those owned by Bird, should be classified as mopeds under North Carolina law.

 

However, many believe that the scooters may be classified as “mopeds,” as defined by N.C.G.S. § 20-4.01(27)(j).  This law defines a moped as “a vehicle . . . that has two or three wheels, no external shifting device, a motor that does not exceed 50 cubic centimeters piston displacement and cannot propel the vehicle at a speed greater than 30 miles per hour . . . .”  Included in the definition are vehicles with an electric motor, like those used in Bird scooters.  This distinction would be very important, as the DMV has special rulesfor moped users that do not apply to users of other types of vehicles.  In addition to requiring registration with the DMV, mopeds must also have liability insurance and license plates.  Moped users are required to comply with certain, specific safety guidelines, such as wearing a helmet and using hand signals when turning.

 

Many believe that electric scooters, like those owned by Bird, should be classified as mopeds under North Carolina law; others believe that these restrictions are too excessive and burdensome.  Aside from having a motor and not requiring human energy or effort to be propelled forward, these scooters are somewhat similar to bicycles.  Although perhaps Bird scooters should not be treated as bicycles under the law, scooter users could still benefit from following bicycle safety techniques.  Like bicyclists, scooter riders should be cautioned against riding against traffic, and they should also follow other safety practices, such as wearing a helmet and avoiding collisions with pedestrians on sidewalks.

 

The new regulations proposed by Raleigh’s city council are certainly a step in the right direction.  Since this new electric scooter fad is likely not going away any time soon, it is critical for protocol to be put into place that will protect scooter users, pedestrians, and motorists alike.  As laws change and adapt to include more specific definitions for unusual modes of transportation, such as the electric scooter, it will be easier to enforce regulations consistently on electric scooter companies, as well as on noncompliant or negligent riders.  It remains to be seen whether excessive lobbyingwill overly influence Bird scooter legislation, or whether regulations will continue to develop naturally, according to the city’s needs.

Miranda Tarlton
About Miranda Tarlton (6 Articles)
Miranda is a third year law student and serves as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. Originally from Charlotte, NC, Miranda attended Campbell University where she obtained a degree in history, with a minor in criminal justice. Before beginning law school, she worked for a number of years as an ESL teacher in Seoul, Korea. After her 1L year, Miranda worked in the legal department at Workplace Options. This past summer, she worked as a legal intern at the Law Offices of C. Melody Edwardo, PLLC. Miranda is currently a Co-coordinator for the Domestic Violence Advocacy Project, as well as the Vice President of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund. Miranda is interested in international affairs and advocating for international human rights, and she is pursuing an LL.M degree through Campbell's partnership with Nottingham-Trent University.