CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again

Tech Industry

Bird goes after helmet laws for electric scooters

The e-scooter rental company quietly sponsors a bill to get rid of some California safety rules.

Man riding an e-scooter along a sidewalk, without a helmet.

In California, it's illegal to ride an electric scooter without a helmet and to ride one on the sidewalk.

James Martin/CNET

Electric scooters operated by Bird, the largest e-scooter rental company in California, come with a little sticker that says, "helmet required, license required, no riding on sidewalks, no double riding, 18+ years old."

This isn't just a list of best practices from Bird. They're California state laws for the motorized vehicles, which can travel up to 15 miles per hour. But if you look at the people zipping around city streets on these things, you'll see them breaking at least one rule nine times out of 10.

So Bird decided to do something about it.

In February, the company sponsored a bill in the California State Legislature that's aimed at getting rid of most of these safety rules. The bill proposed doing away with the helmet and driver's license requirements and raising the maximum speed of the motorized scooters to 20 mph. It also said riders should be allowed to cruise on sidewalks. This bill has quietly made its way through the state assembly and is now up for the senate vote. And it's looking likely to pass.

In the months since it was introduced, however, AB-2989 has been watered down by about 10 amendments. As it now stands, all current regulations remain except for the helmet provision. If passed, the bill would permit people 18 and over to legally ride the electric scooters without a helmet, just like a bike. That may be convenient, but it's not exactly safe.

"If you hit a pothole on a bicycle with a big wheel, you could have a problem. You hit a pothole on this little thing, you're going to go down," said forensic kinesiologist James Kent, who runs a consultation practice in Southern California. "If I fall over sideways and I can't break that fall and don't have a helmet on, I can potentially kill myself."

Bird puts stickers on its scooters that outline California's laws for the vehicles.

Dara Kerr/CNET

Dockless, rentable, electric scooters are the latest Silicon Valley trend to upset the regulatory world. Over the past six months, the two biggest VC-backed scooter companies, Bird and Lime, have dropped their electric vehicles on the sidewalks of unsuspecting cities across the US. From San Francisco to Denver and Austin to Atlanta, city officials have been trying to figure out how to deal with the law-breaking scooter riders and grievances from hundreds of residents.

Santa Monica, California, which last September became the first city to get the scooters, filed a complaint against Bird in December on nine criminal counts. Bird signed a $300,000 plea deal with that city two months later. In San Diego, police started issuing tickets of up to $250 to riders who weren't wearing helmets. And San Francisco cracked down on the number of the vehicles allowed on city streets with its own scooter law in April.

Bird said that's why legislation like AB-2989 is necessary: to have consistent laws across the state.

"Our goal in supporting this legislation continues to be providing riders of shared scooters and e-bikes with more consistent ridership rules so that people can embrace sustainable shared mobility," a Bird spokeswoman said. The company also said it sends free helmets to all active riders if they pay for shipping costs.

Assemblyman Heath Flora, a Republican who represents part of the Central Valley, introduced AB-2989. No city in his district currently has rentable scooters.

Flora didn't return requests for comment.

When first introduced, the city of San Francisco opposed AB-2989 and issued a resolution against the legislation. The Board of Supervisors said the bill "directly contradicts San Francisco's current efforts to responsibly regulate standup electric scooters in order to enhance public benefit while mitigating risk of harm to the public realm." 

Both the city of Santa Monica and California Walks, a coalition of nonprofits geared toward pedestrian safety, were also against the legislation as it was originally proposed. Now, as amended, California Walks no longer has a position on the bill. 

Constance Farrell, public information officer for the City Manager of Santa Monica, said the city is pleased the bill has been amended -- especially since local officials have responded to more than a dozen accidents since the scooters rolled out.

"We fiercely advocated to maintain vital safety linchpins that would have been stripped in AB 2989's original form, including the driver's license requirement and prohibition on sidewalk riding," said Farrell. "We continue to believe it's safest when helmets are used by riders of all ages, whether on a scooter or a bike."

First published July 14, 5 a.m. PT. 
Update, July 16 at 3:15 p.m.: Adds information on the city of San Francisco's position on AB-2989.

The Smartest Stuff: Innovators are thinking up new ways to make you -- and the world around you -- smarter.

CNET Magazine: Check out a sampling of the stories you'll find in CNET's newsstand edition.