Mobility scooters can help keep the elderly move around, but a policy review is in order

In recent years, urban mobility has been changing in several ways and the pandemic seems to be accelerating these already-existing trends. Mobility scooters can be an excellent aid for those who struggle to get around otherwise, but safety and regulations seem to have fallen behind. A duo of researchers is now calling for a review of these regulations.

Image credits: Ben Wicks.

Mobility scooters can be a very useful alternative for the elderly or disabled. They are simple, electricity-powered vehicles, suitable for short-distance travel at low speeds — excellently suited for buying groceries or going out, for instance.

“As the population ages, one of the challenges that older people living in urban environments face is remaining mobile,” note Michal Isaacson and Dov Barkay, the authors of a new study, both from the University of Haifa. “Due to physical changes that become more common with age, older adults’ mobility may be limited, restricting their autonomy. As a result, restoring older adults’ autonomy may require mobility solutions other than driving cars or using public transportation.”

Mobility scooters are becoming increasingly popular. According to 2014 data from the US Census Bureau (2014), 40% of people aged 65 and older have to contend with disabilities, with two-thirds having difficulty walking. Like much of the developed world, the US population is also expected to grow its elderly population: the number of Americans over 65 is expected to nearly double from 51 million in 2017 to 95 million in 2060. Projections also suggest that mobility disabilities will rise to reach around 24 million.

Unsurprisingly, mobility scooters have also become more and more common. In the US, sales have experienced a 7.3% yearly compound growth, and this isn’t even accounting for COVID-19, which may convince some to use such a scooter instead of public transportation, for instance. But the scooters have rarely been studied in the scientific literature.

To address this, Isaacson and Barkay carried a review of existing data, policy, and science on mobility scooters.

Nowadays, there’s a wide variety of mobility scooters for sale, but the scooters are usually split into two categories: class 2 mobility scooters (smaller and lighter-more compact, also allowed indoor, with speeds of up to 4 km/h — a light stroll), and class 3 mobility scooters (larger, speeds of up to 8 km/h, only allowed outside). Any further classification falls apart.

Image credits: Isaacson and Barkay.

No two countries seem to have similar regulations for mobility scooters, the researchers note (they analyzed the US, Canada, UK, Germany, and Australia).

None of the examined countries require a driving license, which is presumably a good thing, as many people perceive driving not merely as a mode of transportation but as a symbol of independence and wellbeing, especially after the cessation of driving vehicles. However, although they run at low speeds, collisions are not unheard of and can have dire consequences.

Driver training is also something that needs to be addressed, the researchers note. Furthermore, actually finding the routes to use them can prove challenging.

At present, most countries consider mobility scooter riders as pedestrians. As a result, users must take the sidewalk, which can be difficult. Pedestrians are small and nimble, while scooters are bulky and not flexible, which means that any obstacle (such as a garbage bin or a bench, for instance), can be difficult to navigate around. This can produce risks, also for the elderly or more vulnerable pedestrians who are not using scooters. Sidewalks should be a safe refuge for pedestrians, but that sanctuary might be threatened when mobility scooters come into the picture. Then, there’s the problem of parking.

Parking spots for scooters need to be very closeby to be accessible and ideally, also protect from the rain and theft. The allocated spots need to be therefore designed accordingly, which can also be a challenge, especially in crowded cities.

“With the rise in the number of mobility scooters driven on streets within cities, the transportation infrastructure needs to be modified to accommodate mobility scooters. Urban and transportation planners need to address creating accessible passageways and allocating secured parking spaces that do not interfere with pedestrian movement and safety within cities,” the study notes.

Ultimately, the two researchers conclude that scooters can be important in making cities more inclusive and safe for specific populations. However, a few things need to be ensured: paths clear of obstacles, proper training, and appropriate parking.

“At stake are the safety of pedestrians and mobility scooter drivers, aspects of inclusion and sustainability in cities, as well as the wellbeing and independence of older people,” the study concludes.

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