Skip to main content

E-scooters: Antisocial Use

Volume 724: debated on Thursday 8 December 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Robert Largan.)

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to have this debate today. I understand it may be the first parliamentary debate on e-scooters in this place. I understand from friends in the other place that there have been a number of references down there. The rise of the e-scooter has been a worldwide phenomenon. The global market for the product has been valued at more than £15 billion a year and it has made its mark in the UK in recent years. It is estimated that there are now 750,000 private e-scooters in use in the UK, with the majority being used illegally. The Bicycle Association suggests that as many as 360,000 were purchased in 2020 alone, and we can expect further growth in their use and sales in the UK in the years to come.

Today, I speak to draw attention to an issue that is a cause of much frustration to my constituents: the antisocial and illegal use of e-scooters. While not necessarily isolated to individual areas, Lliswerry, Ringland, Alway and St Julians in my constituency have been flashpoints for this activity. My thanks go to the councillors, residents and even a scout group who have discussed the matter with me. Groups of e-scooter and e-bike riders are careering between pavements and the road, breaking speed limits—I have witnessed that—running red lights, weaving in and out of traffic and causing other vehicles and pedestrians to take avoiding action. As one constituent put it to me,

“the culprits are usually…clothed in black without any reflective items, and have total disregard for the Highway Code and pedestrians.”

In the dark winter months, that is obviously even more of a hazard for other road users.

Ahead of the debate, I received a lot of feedback from constituents sharing their experiences of e-scooters. I want to quote just a few examples. One constituent says:

“They are dangerous, they are on the pavements, and as someone who has a mobility problem I have a problem getting out of there way quickly enough. I am worried that I will get knocked down.”

Another resident said:

“They weave in and out of traffic and scare me to death as they just suddenly appear!”

Another said:

“As someone who is hard of hearing and with no directional hearing, I don’t hear them…they are a menace when ridden on pavements.”

Local residents feel intimidated, unsafe and annoyed, not least because the use of e-scooters on roads, pavements and cycle lanes is illegal everywhere in Wales, and there are no designated Welsh e-scooter trial areas. As a Welsh MP, I note that there is some crossover with devolved policy making. For example, any move to extend the UK Government trials to Wales would depend on working with the Welsh Government and Welsh councils and would require the Senedd to amend the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2016. However, it is important to point out that road traffic offences, driver licensing, vehicle insurance and vehicle registration are all reserved issues for the UK Government to address.

E-scooters are rightly classed as motor vehicles when they are legally used in trial areas, which means that the rules that apply to motor vehicles also apply to e-scooters, including the need to have a licence, insurance and tax. At the moment, you cannot get insurance for privately owned e-scooters and as such you would not be eligible to make an accident or injury claim if you were involved in an incident while riding unlawfully on public roads. The Association of British Insurers has highlighted that, if uninsured e-scooter users cause collisions or injury, the Motor Insurers’ Bureau must pick up the liability for these claims. The MIB reports that it is already seeing a growing number of claims from the illegal use of e-scooters and there is the potential to incur significant costs, which ultimately may lead to increases in motor insurance premiums for other motorists, which is a really unfair situation. In short, unless they are on private land, no one in Wales should be using an e-scooter, nor should anyone in the rest of the UK unless they are renting an approved e-scooter in one of the 30 designated trial areas. To add to some of the confusion around the law as it stands, several of the trial areas are just over the other side of the Severn bridge from my constituency, in Bristol, Gloucester, Cheltenham and Bath.

Gwent police are doing what they can to crack down on this and have had success in seizing a number of e-scooters engaged in antisocial and illegal activity around Newport. That includes e-scooters, and, indeed, e-bikes and e-motorcycles, being used in drug dealing, which is an alarming trend locally and across the UK. We know that the police cannot be everywhere and that resources are still stretched after 12 years of Tory cuts. Let us not forget that Gwent police saw their budget cut by 40% in the last decade and have been able to maintain a high level of service only by increasing the precept.

From speaking to the police and other stakeholders, there is a real sense that the problem is not a lack of provision for enforcement action, but a widespread and dangerous lack of knowledge about what the law is, particularly among young people. The waters have been muddied further by leading retailers. This week, The Guardian reported that Amazon was advertising a new e-scooter model last week as a “commuter companion”. The promotion warned users not to travel on the scooter during thunderstorms, but failed to point out that its use on any British road would be illegal. Retailers need to behave more responsibly. Road Safety Wales and Gwent police have campaigned on that, and I totally agree with them that retailers should do more to ensure that potential customers are fully aware that illegal e-scooter use carries with it the risk of a £300 fine, six penalty points on their driving licence and the potential seizure of the scooter.

The Home Office and the Department for Transport need to do more on awareness, too. It should not be left to individual police forces, whose resources are already stretched, to educate the public. That is one of my main challenges to Ministers: what are they doing to ensure that everyone living outside of a designated trial area knows that they should not be using an e-scooter on a road, cycle path or pavement?

The use of e-scooters on pavements is also a particular concern for those with hearing loss and the visually impaired, who rely on clear, safe routes to travel independently. Research carried out on behalf of Guide Dogs earlier this year showed that 78% of people with sight loss had had a negative experience with an e-scooter, and that more than 50% had reported changing their behaviour due to e-scooters, including not going into some parts of town, changing their regular routes and doing what they can to reduce their risk of encountering e-scooters.

Guide Dogs also reported that 12% of people with sight loss have had their mobility aid or cane hit by an e-scooter, 10% had been hit but not injured and 2% had been hit and injured by one. The virtually silent nature of e-scooters is undoubtedly a contributing factor. Guide Dogs and the Royal National Institute of Blind People are supportive of the introduction of an e-scooter equivalent to the acoustic vehicle alerting system on quiet hybrid and electric vehicles. This week, BBC News reported that the University of Salford is developing new technologies that might help with that, working closely with the RNIB and the micro-mobility company, Dott. I trust that the Government will monitor that closely and continue to consider options for the sound-related regulation of e-scooters in future.

Sound is not the only problem. As private e-scooters are unregulated, there are no restrictions on their power, weight or speed. Indeed, the maximum speed for private e-scooters far exceeds the capped limit for trial e-scooters. Many privately purchased e-scooters are capable of travelling at 30 mph. Some models, such as one of the models highlighted as a cause for concern by Guide Dogs and which is currently sold out on the manufacturer’s UK website, can reach speeds as high as 68 mph. A report by Margaret Winchcomb of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety notes that even private scooters capped at 30 mph can be modified to reach speeds of up to 60 mph.

Even the rental e-scooters used in the trial areas have a maximum power that is double that of e-bikes and a maximum weight of 55 kg that is roughly three times the average weight of a standard e-bike. The speed, weight and power requirements for e-scooters in trial areas in the UK are also much more lenient than those in place in equivalent schemes in other European countries.

The combined effect of higher e-scooter speed, power and weight in the UK means that these vehicles are significantly more dangerous in a collision, so it is little wonder that there has been a marked increase in crashes involving e-scooters. There were 460 reported collisions involving e-scooters in 2020; DFT figures covering the year from June 2021 to June 2022 show that the number had risen to 1,349. Over the past year alone, the number of people seriously injured in a collision with an e-scooter has risen to 429, with 12 deaths, so there are issues that the Government need to look at now. There is a real need to improve awareness of existing laws among the public.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Robert Largan.)

Gwent police and other forces have taken a lead with social media campaigns, particularly around Christmas, making the public aware of the rules for e-scooters before they are purchased as Christmas presents. However, there seems to be little national steer from either the Home Office or the DFT to educate the general population.

I also want to ask what the Government are doing to ensure that our police forces have all the resources they need to tackle antisocial e-scooter use. When I raised the subject in September with the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), she told me that her colleagues in the Department for Transport were liaising with the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs’ Council on the issue. It would be interesting to know whether there are any updates and whether there is a joined-up approach to enforcement action across the UK.

On a related note, it is also worth asking what steps will be taken to ensure that efficient mechanisms are in place to report e-scooters that are being used dangerously or illegally. RNIB Cymru is just one of the organisations that have highlighted that as a nationwide issue.

I recently tabled a written question on e-scooter specifications. The response from the Department for Transport stated:

“The Department is currently considering options for construction and use regulations for e-scooters, which will likely include requirements for details such as power, weight and maximum design speed.”

I understand that the Minister may not be able to provide a comprehensive answer today about specification regulations, but any updates on the timeframe within which we can expect an announcement or a consultation would be welcome.

The lack of regulation and control over the sale of untested and potentially unsafe privately owned e-scooters is a real problem. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) highlighted this week at the Select Committee on Transport, the UK is “falling years behind” other countries because of its lack of regulation on e-scooters, as well as on issues such as pavement parking.

There is also an ongoing issue with transparency and data reporting from the trial areas in England. It needs to be addressed quickly, because the Government have already announced that the trials can be extended until May 2024. After all, these trials are just that: they are tests. At the moment, it is hard to work out what metric the Government are using to decide whether the trials have been successful. It would be wrong for Ministers to press ahead towards legislation across the UK on the basis of scarce evidence from selected areas in England.

As just one example, in its 2020 report on e-scooters, the Transport Committee called on the Department to

“clarify how it intends to monitor whether e-scooters during the rental trials are being ridden on pavements and the number of users penalised for this offence, and that it has evaluated and identified effective measures to eliminate such antisocial behaviour.”

Although the Government said at the time that they agreed with the Select Committee’s recommendation, there has been no meaningful update on how those issues are being monitored or whether the trials are working.

It is also worth pointing out that several major European cities that initially embraced different forms of e-scooter trials—notably Paris, Stockholm and Copenhagen—have since partially reversed course and introduced more stringent regulation on their use. E-scooter schemes in Europe are generally far better regulated than the English trials, too: in Germany, for example, all e-scooter users need to be insured, display insurance stickers and use appropriate lights, brakes, reflectors and bells. In countries such as France, Austria, Belgium, Finland and Portugal, rules of the road for e-scooter users replicate those in place for cyclists.

When I spoke about some of the antisocial behaviour that we have seen in Newport East, I also referred to e-bikes, which many of my constituents see as part of the same problem. Many complaints relate to what appear to be electric bikes, but are technically electric motorcycles—mechanically propelled vehicles with no pedals. It is possible to purchase legal electric bikes, but over the past two years Gwent police have come across only one in the region. The vast majority being used in residential areas cannot be used legally on the roads without a licence, tax, insurance and an MOT. As a result they can be seized under section 165 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, and the police can deal with the rider in relation to any offences found.

Gwent police has had some success in seizing offending vehicles over recent months, but enforcement comes with challenges. For example, local residents have reported that it is difficult to build up an intel picture of those engaged in dangerous driving or criminal activity, given that culprits often wear similar dark clothing, wear face coverings and use bikes that look incredibly similar. All those factors make it much harder for the police to identify the offenders, let alone justify high-speed pursuits. Those are further issues for the Government to look at.

I appreciate that there are other sides to this debate, and there will of course be advocates for e-scooters, especially at a time when we want to shift people from car use. One constituent said to me:

“I do agree they provide very cheap & convenient forms of transport and as usual, it is the inconsiderate riders who spoil it for the genuine ones.”

Another said:

“I think e-scooters and e-bikes are great modes of transport and with zero emissions they are a step in the right direction. However, the way they are used at the moment is dangerous and there should be clear rules regarding whether they are for road use or not and make the users have proper lights and wear reflective clothing.”

What is clear is that we are seeing a modal shift away from cars, a shift that we need to see, and I accept that there is a legitimate case for e-scooters to form part of that mix in the future. However, before pushing ahead with the expansion of their legal use, the Government should be aware of the strength of feeling that exists in communities such as the one that I represent: a view that is shaped by residents’ lived experiences of e-scooters as a nuisance closely linked to antisocial behaviour. Their stance—and that of charities such as Guide Dogs and the Royal National Institute of Blind People which represent the concerns of some of the most vulnerable people in our communities—is that the Government should not proceed with the legalisation of privately owned e-scooters on the basis of the limited evidence available from the designated rental areas alone. Instead, they should look at strengthening regulation, and put public safety first in all their decisions.

Earlier this year the former Transport Secretary, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), said that the Government planned to introduce measures concerning e-scooters in the Queen’s Speech. Those measures never came. A wider transport Bill was also promised, but we learned this week from the new Transport Secretary that it was unlikely to see the light of day in this Parliament. That sheds further light on the recent response to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) on e-scooter regulation, in which the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer) said that the Government would legislate on micro-mobility “when parliamentary time allows”.

The Transport Secretary at least acknowledged this week that the merry-go-round of Ministers in the Department had contributed to legislative gridlock, but whichever way we look at it, it is not good enough. I should therefore be grateful if, in his response, the Minister could provide a more substantive update on the overdue transport Bill, as well as any necessary secondary legislation to introduce regulations on electric scooters as a defined form of micro-mobility.

In its 2020 report, the Transport Committee said that the Government should be

“developing and implementing a sensible and proportionate regulatory framework for legal e-scooter use, drawing on lessons from other countries, which ensures that potential negative impacts on pedestrians and disabled people are avoided.”

That still has not happened, and it needs to happen now.

I thank the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) for her speech, and for the resolute campaigning and interrogation that she has devoted to this issue for a considerable time. As she and the House will know, this country’s transport system is intrinsically a highly complex and evolving network. There is a constant stream of new vehicles and other technological transport innovations, and dealing with them is one of the continuing challenges for any Government, including this one. It is, however, clear—as the hon. Lady said—that the Government have a responsibility to ensure the safe use of new transport technologies, especially for the most vulnerable users. If those problems are not tackled head-on, and if antisocial and unsafe use is not addressed, the economic and social opportunities that everyone recognises derive from a properly functioning transport system may be lost.

It is also essential, for reasons of public consent, to bring the public along with the policy so they understand that they are being kept safe, as well as being supported, by transport, and to reassure them as the pace and scale of these transport changes, which amount to something of a revolution in electrification and miniaturisation, accelerate. We recognise that the current lack of regulation is at odds with the increasing use of e-scooters. It is essential to ensure that the right regulation, designed to create proper accountability and responsibility, is in place. Regulation, as well as ensuring safety, should minimise burdens on the development of new innovations and new technologies wherever possible.

There was a vivid demonstration of this when the pandemic struck, because there was a clear need to mitigate the impact of reduced shared public transport capacity and to provide a convenient, clean transport option that allows for social distancing. As a result, the Department for Transport accelerated and expanded plans for four e-scooter trials in 2021, in order to go further and faster in that direction. It fast-tracked the trials, launching them in July 2020, following a public consultation with more than 2,000 responses showing strong support for running trials to gather evidence. There were 17 trials in operation by October 2020, and today there are 27.

Alongside this, the Government introduced clear rules from the start, stating in part that e-scooters must not be ridden on pavements, that e-scooters must be speed restricted to 15.5 mph, or lower where the local authority requires, and that users must have a full or provisional driving licence, and therefore that a minimum age of 16 applies. These rules are required to be communicated to users through an app before they use an e-scooter.

From the start, it was also clear that discarded rental e-scooters would be a hazard to pedestrians, particularly those with visual impairments. The Department therefore empowered local authorities to encourage the responsible parking of rental e-scooters. It is fair to say that we have very successful working between operators and cities, which has helped to reduce the nuisance and obstruction that e-scooters can cause.

Like the hon. Member for Newport East, I am grateful to organisations such as Guide Dogs UK, the Royal National Institute of Blind People and Sight Loss Councils, among others, for collaborating with operators and local authorities, and for the insights they have shared with the Department for Transport.

The Government have extended the trials until May 2024 to ensure they can continue to gather evidence on what does and does not work, which is the reason for having such a wide range of trials and such a wide range of scope for regulatory and other innovations. The evidence and learning from these trials will be published shortly.

I am mindful that technology and incentives alone cannot tackle antisocial use. There will always be some antisocial use of any mode of transport, which comes with the turf. As the hon. Lady knows, Wales chose not to participate in the trials, and so by default any e-scooter ridden on public roads in her constituency is illegal. Most micro-mobility vehicles, including e-scooters, are currently classed as motor vehicles and must meet the wide range of requirements built into the current legislation.

The hon. Lady asked about the joining up of enforcement, and my Department is in regular contact with the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the Home Office to ensure a consistent approach to tackling this issue. We continue to support the police to ensure they have the tools they need. The House will recall that a full suite of offences can apply to e-scooters relating to speeding, dangerous driving and drink and drug driving, as well as to licensing and insurance. Users have been fined up to £300, had their vehicle impounded and had up to six points put on their driving licence, so a driver who recently passed their test could lose their licence if caught riding a private e-scooter.

The Minister refers to the powers that the police have. Does he have any statistics available to show how many offences have been recorded and what punishment has been handed out? It is probably fair to say that that is rather limited.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the police publish statistics on crimes and offences. It is important to say that this will differ by region and by the priorities for the police forces in question. We have devolved police forces and they are not accountable directly to Government; they set their own priorities. In Wales, they may choose to set priorities that decide that any e-scooter ridden on roads there is illegal and then fine people and take appropriate enforcement action on that basis. The same will be true in other parts of the country, depending on the specifics of the police force’s own priorities. The key point is that when they reach for those enforcement mechanisms, they will find one of most established and strictest regulatory suites of enforcement rules and requirements anywhere in the world.

There is not a great deal of time left in this debate, so let me say that our current regulatory regime on micro-mobility is a symptom of the rapid evolution of the market. It is important to recognise that UK retailers also have a duty to advise their customers of the law and to ensure that those customers do not unknowingly take the law into their own hands. The hon. Lady gave the example of one particular online retailer, but this week I have written to retailers reminding them of the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency’s continuing market surveillance work in this area, specifically in relation to the marketing that the retailers have put online, and their duties on advertising and the accurate provision of information. That, too, is an important way of assisting a crackdown on illegal and irresponsible use.

Since setting up the trials, we have had 31 million journeys on e- scooters, with the vast majority being completed safely. It is important to see these in some form of context. Nevertheless, there have sadly been four deaths in the trials, the most recent of which was the tragic death in Birmingham on Tuesday morning. I am following the detail of that case closely and will be ensuring that we learn lessons from this terrible incident. I extend my condolences and those of the Department to the family of the person involved. I am sure that the House will understand that it would be inappropriate for me to comment further while the police investigation is under way.

We have also already implemented some early learning from the trials. In February, the Government set out further guidance for the rental trials on minimum training, further encouragement of helmet use, mandating unique identification numbers and reducing illegal behaviour. Following that, the private sector trial operators have risen to the challenge and started to provide innovative solutions. They include things such as credits for ‘helmet selfies’, app-based safety quizzes or compulsory reaction tests after 10pm in an attempt to cut down on drink-riding. Outside the trials, we know that there are safety concerns surrounding the illegal use of private e-scooters on our roads too. Between July 2021 and June 2022, there were 1,437 casualties recorded in collisions on the public highway involving both rental and illegal private e-scooters, with 12 killed. That goes to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers). We also know that it is not just e-scooter riders getting hurt; of those 1,437 casualties, 342 were other road users, and of the 12 fatalities one was a pedestrian. So the clear need for enforcement activity is evident.

Let me wind up quickly. We need to find a balance between the conflicting requirements. No one wants an unregulated free-for-all, as that would be unsafe for our communities.

I would be grateful if the Minister just addressed the issue of the transport Bill and any secondary legislation that is planned by the Government. Will he give us an idea of what is planned in a transport Bill and when we might see it, and of any secondary legislation relating to some of the things we have learnt from the trials?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but I do not think that I can do better than my colleague, the Secretary of State, in his comments to the Transport Committee, and I do not think that this would be an appropriate place for an impromptu announcement, even if I had one, in this area. I understand her concern and I share it. We, too, want to take vigorous action not just in this area, but in several other areas of transport. We recognise the public concern, and we also recognise the economic and business benefits from effective, early legislation.

As I was saying, Mr Deputy Speaker, the point here is that we need to find a balance in the way that we regulate. An unregulated free-for-all is unsafe for communities, and, in the long run, bad for businesses, as public policy follows, potentially, a cycle of reactions to faltering consumer confidence and real-world safety impacts. We do not want to be in a position where laws trail behind, to the extent that UK businesses are forced to launch innovations abroad and our transport users’ needs and wants are unmet.

Does the Minister accept that other European countries are much further ahead than us in looking at what regulations we might need with e-scooters in a whole range of specifications, such as speed and so on? Does he accept that we are far behind them and therefore there is a need to legislate quickly, or to look at this quickly, rather than to leave it to drag on if there is no transport Bill?

I am afraid that I do not accept that, no. The facts of the matter are that some other countries have decided to change their regulations because they had launched the wrong set. They have re-regulated in certain cities, and some countries have not even permitted any trials of e-scooters, so I do not accept that. Indeed, in general in this country, we have a remarkably flexible, open and innovative transport sector. One can see that in the use and trial of autonomous vehicle technologies, in the use of zero emission vehicles, in the ways that electric vehicles are being brought into the market in the UK, and in the speed and development of that market. Therefore, I do not accept that point.

However, we do need a flexible and fully enforceable regulatory framework that allows Government and agencies of Government to manage the balance that I have described and to handle the different challenges faced by cycles and motor vehicles. That is why we announced at the Queen’s Speech our intention to bring forward primary powers, as the hon. Lady has mentioned. However, this is a complex area, and the Government are still developing requirements for e-scooter use and are continuing to gather the evidence. There is an enormous amount of evidence being brought forward from the trials. The trials are diverse in the way that they address these issues. That is deliberate and it allows more testing of different contexts, different outcomes and different technological and behavioural responses, and that is a valuable thing.

The goal throughout is to ensure that we tackle anti- social behaviour, learn from the trials, encourage take-up and also support the active travel and decarbonisation agendas. If we are properly able to manage that, e-scooters may well be able to take their place alongside the other technologies that are in place, but it is not appropriate to pre-judge the results of the consultation that we will be launching in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.