E-scooters: the need for a new legal regime and the potential risks of prosecution

Micromobility vehicles such as e-scooters and e-bikes are increasingly being used in our towns and cities. Indeed, it is now commonplace to see e-scooters in the morning rush hour, especially in large cities. However, recent serious incidents involving e-scooters have raised a number of concerns about the use of micromobility vehicles, generally.

The legal position for the use of e-scooters and the potential risks of their use, are not always appreciated. With some models advertised as capable of reaching speeds of 30mph and higher, the dangers are evident. Often the warnings and legal position are not easily identifiable.   

The law

Updated in December 2018, the Department for Transport (DfT) published an information sheet, ‘Powered transporters’, aimed at providing guidance to users and purchasers of these vehicles, as well as to help retailers, manufacturers, hirers and importers to understand the law about their use.” An overview of the guidance includes the following summary:

  • “Powered transporters” is a term used to cover a variety of novel and emerging personal transport devices which are powered by a motor, including e-scooters.
  • Given how powered transporters are motorised and designed, they fall within the legal definition of a “motor vehicle”. Therefore, the laws that apply to motor vehicles apply to powered transporters.
  • It is illegal to use a powered transporter on a public road without complying with a number of legal requirements, which potential users will find very difficult.
  • It is illegal to use a powered transporter in spaces which are set aside for use by pedestrians, cyclists, and horse-riders. This includes on the pavement and in cycle lanes.
  • Any person who uses a powered transporter on a public road or other prohibited space in breach of the law is committing a criminal offence and can be prosecuted.
  • It is legal to use a powered transporter on private land with the permission of the land owner.

Whilst the government guidance states that there “is no specially-designed legal regime for powered transporters”, it refers to some examples of case law where the courts have considered the application of the law relating to motor vehicles. E-scooters (and other powered transporters) are considered to fall within the definition of “motor vehicle” under s185 of the Road Traffic Act 1988.

In pointing out the requirements that must be met for a motor vehicle to be used lawfully on public roads (including but not limited to insurance, payment of vehicle tax, licensing, and registration), the guidance states:

If the user of a powered transporter could meet these requirements, it might in principle be lawful for them to use public roads. However, it is likely that they will find it very difficult to comply with all of these requirements, meaning that it would be a criminal offence to use them on the road.

Further, those riding dangerously or whilst under the influence of alcohol or drugs can also be convicted of offences that lead to imprisonment. An incident leading to the injury or death of someone whilst riding one, could result in prosecution for very serious offences such as causing death by careless driving or dangerous driving.

This presents a number of interesting questions from a legal perspective. What is considered careful and competent when riding an e-scooter? Should a user be subject to a competency test similar to the compulsory basic training carried out by riders of motorcycles and mopeds, for example? Should there be an additional class added to the user’s driving licence and therefore, a requirement to hold a valid driving licence in order to use an e-scooter?

The approach that will be adopted is currently unclear. However, it is clear that the law is struggling to keep pace with their growing popularity and it is accepted that even if a rider wanted to make themselves ‘legal’ they would struggle to do so.

What next for e-scooters in the UK?

The DfT’s Call for Evidence last year on the Future of Mobility, included consideration of issues relating to “use of the road and micromobility”, with a summary of the responses published in January this year noting that:

Several respondents called for a review of how new types of micromobility, such as electric scooters and shared bikes, could safely be integrated into the urban transport system.

It remains to be seen as to what further regulations are imposed to govern this new innovative area in technological transport. In London, the Metropolitan Police have been taking action against those using e-scooters illegally (including issuing warnings and in other circumstances fines and seizing the e-scooters). Reports indicate that this has been a focus since April, with a more targeted operation also launched.

Overall, further regulations that seek to govern this new innovative area in technological transport are likely to be forthcoming. Meanwhile, the potential for further incidents is apparent, which includes personal injury claims from those injured in collisions involving e-scooters – especially in those areas with a high concentration of pedestrians. If users continue to ride e-scooters on the pavement, despite this being prohibited - it follows that it is only a matter of time before a rider is prosecuted.

There are several charges which could be considered; from a minor charge of driving on the pavement which carries a fine, to the most serious i.e. causing serious injury or death by dangerous driving which both carry the potential of immediate terms of imprisonment. 

From the civil perspective the rider of an e-scooter owes a duty of care to pedestrians, cyclists and other road users in the usual way. If they ride negligently and cause someone to suffer injury and/or loss then they can be sued. Although insurance products are available, it is currently not compulsory to have insurance and one has to wonder how many users are taking out cover. If a rider does not have cover then they are potentially placing themselves at risk of a significant personal financial liability.