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If you step on the sidewalk outside the NPR headquarters, you may have to be careful not to trip over an electric scooter sitting there, waiting for the next rider. Companies have deployed scooters from Washington, D.C., to Milwaukee, Wis., to Lubbock, Texas. People download a phone app and use it to pay. Just one question. How safe are they to ride? Deena Prichep reports.
DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Portland, Ore., is in the middle of a four-month scooter pilot program. You see them everywhere - parked on sidewalks, taking fast corners, zipping through traffic. But one thing you don't see much of - helmets.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Don't tell them.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Don't tell. I won't give you my real name (laughter).
PRICHEP: That's because she's not wearing a helmet, nor are any of her friends. The city of Portland and the scooter companies both require them, and with some good reason. Scooters aren't bikes. They accelerate without you pedaling and take some getting used to for both riders and cars.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: One of our friends almost just got run over. The brake lights on theirs don't work, you know (laughter)?
CATHERINE JUILLARD: We've seen things from broken bones to punctured lungs, shattered pelvis.
PRICHEP: Catherine Juillard is a trauma surgeon at Zuckerberg San Francisco General and an assistant professor at UCSF. California has welcomed these scooters, even changing the law so riders don't have to wear helmets, whereas other places like the city of Seattle are concerned enough about injuries that they're not allowing them at all.
JUILLARD: When they enter the sector of transportation, that's also entering the sector of public health. So it becomes a different ballgame, and we need to make sure that we're doing it safely.
PRICHEP: In San Francisco, Juillard is part of the city's injury prevention collaborative, which is collecting data on e-scooter injuries. Are they happening at particular intersections? Are people fracturing skulls or spraining ankles? Or are some types of scooters more dangerous than others?
JUILLARD: So you have to look at the patterns to see where the trends are and where the low-hanging fruit are.
PRICHEP: As a trauma surgeon, Juillard has seen the dangers. But she also sees the potential because San Francisco is a city dealing with a lot of car traffic. And so is Portland.
JOHN BRADY: We're going to have many more thousands of jobs, many more thousands of residents. We're not going to be building many more thousands of streets.
PRICHEP: John Brady is the spokesperson for Portland's Bureau of Transportation. To continue to have a city that works, that moves, they want to welcome innovation. Knowing you can just hop on a scooter for a few bucks might encourage more people to leave their cars at home. But Portland wants to make sure these innovations meet all of the city's transportation goals - moving people efficiently, cutting emissions and making each trip as safe as possible.
BRADY: If at the same time we're seeing a rise in injuries but we also see that people are getting out of their car and potentially helping to relieve congestion, you know, is that a tradeoff from a public agency standpoint that we think is a good one? I don't know. And we don't know yet.
PRICHEP: Portland of course does not want a rise in injuries. They're handing out free helmets and doing a public education campaign. But you only have to look at the scooters going by to see that this is a big change. Cars and scooters are still learning how to be around each other. And not many people are wearing helmets. Cities and physicians will get a better sense of scooter dangers as the data come in over the next few months. In the meanwhile, scoot safely, or you could always walk. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep in Portland, Ore.
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