Benefits and hazards of the power-assisted scooter

It may not be quite the prize as the hoverboard made famous by Marty McFly in Back to the Future, but today’s power-assisted stand scooter is proving itself a close runner-up. In the past few years, there’s been a resurgence of interest in what most of us previously considered a children’s toy. Adding an electric motor to the traditional stand scooter has made it appealing to all ages.

And in a time when the world is seeking ways to transition away from fossil fuels, electric scooters make a whole lot of sense.

But like so many new technologies breaking into the market, public adoption is advancing faster than the laws that regulate them. Right now, few laws govern the safe use of the power-assisted scooter.

First and foremost, questions have arisen as to where the e-scooter belongs—on the sidewalk with pedestrians or on the street in traffic. Also, should they be subject to the same traffic laws as a vehicle or bicycle?

Robert Girden of Niverville has seen e-scooter riders using both the sidewalks and streets to get around town. From his experience, some of the users are either unfamiliar with basic traffic laws or just don’t care.

“Yesterday I witnessed, at the corner of Spruce and Fifth Avenue, a young woman blow right through a stop sign while there were already two cars stopped at two of the four stop signs at the intersection,” Girden says. “If either of the two stopped cars had proceeded through the intersection, this young woman would have been seriously injured. She… did not even attempt to slow down at the stop sign.”

RCMP Sergeant Paul Manaigre says that the proliferation of electronic bikes, scooters, and other motorized devices has the province taking a hard look at changes needed to the Highway Traffic Act.

As it stands, until there’s regulation created specifically for the e-scooter, they fall under the same category as a bike or regular vehicle.

“RCMP officers are being advised that all of these devices are to be treated as vehicles under the Highway Traffic Act until we’re told by the province otherwise,” Manaigre says. “Technically, if you’re on the roadway, you have to abide by the [traffic] rules. So if you blow through a stop sign, you could be charged.”

Manitoba Laws Regarding Power-Assisted Devices

As long as power-assisted devices are being treated like electric bicycles, the law is very specific.

According to the Manitoba Highway Traffic Act, power-assisted bicycles are only to be used by those 14 years of age or older. Riders must wear a helmet while operating a powered device and must drive in single file with other motorized devices occupying the same lane.

While there’s no clear indication yet about the use of e-scooters on sidewalks, the law is clear about bicycles.

“No person shall operate on a sidewalk a bicycle with a rear wheel the diameter of which exceeds 410 mm,” the Act states.

What’s Happening Elsewhere

Most cities across Canada and the U.S. are working to create legislation that addresses the e-scooter independently of other electric devices.

In November 2022, Prince Edward Island developed a policy making it illegal to operate an e-scooter if you’re under 16 years of age. Scooters must be equipped with lights and a bell or horn.

Speed restrictions apply, limiting top speeds to 24 kilometres per hour and only allowing e-scooters on roadways where the maximum posted speed is 60 kilometres per hour or less. Under no circumstances are e-scooters allowed on sidewalks, nor on that province’s Confederation Trail.

Cities like Toronto and Oshawa initially threw open the doors to e-scooters. Since then, Toronto has put a temporary ban on them until more regulations are in place.

Even so, so many residents use them that enforcement hasn’t been all that effective.

In the meantime, people are getting hurt. In June of this year, a pedestrian was struck by a man on an e-scooter on a sidewalk in Toronto and knocked unconscious. She suffered a concussion and a broken collarbone in two places. It took months of physiotherapy before she could go back to work.

Oshawa is also considering a temporary suspension on e-scooters since an incident last spring in which a 20-year-old e-scooter rider was killed after she was struck by a pickup truck.

For many people in local government, it’s becoming increasingly evident that better infrastructure, like dedicated bike and e-scooter lanes, need to be put in place before the device can be considered safe.

In Manitoba, Opinions Differ

Chris Shvets is a 13-year-old Niverville resident who loves his e-scooter. The device’s top speed is 25 kilometres per hour. It’s pretty simple to use, he says, with just an accelerator button and a handlebar braking system.

Shvets believes in practicing caution. He wears a helmet and protective gear and follows the rules of the road. But he doesn’t think e-scooters should be restricted to the street.

“I would argue that if there is a dangerous amount of traffic on the road, the sidewalk is a safe option,” Shvets says.

He agrees that high-speed e-scooters don’t belong in the hands of kids. He knows of another e-scooter owner in Niverville whose vehicle can reach speeds of up to 60 kilometres per hour.

Shvets purchased his scooter at Best Buy. Their store offers models that range in price from $300 to $3,000. Their top speed capabilities vary between 20 and 60 kilometres per hour.

Lee Hee is a sales rep at Scooter City in Winnipeg, a company that specializes in electric scooters and mopeds of almost every variety.

Hee says that she carries mostly low-speed scooters because, generally speaking, that’s where the market demand is.

She says that the majority of her customers are looking for e-scooters that don’t need to be registered and insured, like the higher-speed models.

“Something like that would have to be registered as a moped,” she says. “So anything over the 32 kilometre an hour threshold would require a driver’s license in Manitoba.”

Hee says that she makes it her job to know the restrictions that apply to the products she sells so she can help her customers make informed choices.

According to Hee, you have to be 14 years of age or older to drive an e-bike. If the top speed of the bike exceeds 32 kilometres an hour, a license and registration are required.

The lower-speed e-scooters that have top speeds below 30 kilometres an hour can be legally used by anyone over 12 years of age without a license.

As for whether e-scooters belong on the street, Hee says it’s a matter of opinion.

“I don’t believe e-scooters belong on the sidewalk, but it depends,” she says. “If it’s a stand scooter that does 25 kilometres an hour, they are allowed on the sidewalk because they’re considered not a bicycle. Those are just kind of a toy, in a sense.”

What’s Behind the Popularity

Putting the obvious environmental benefit aside, Hee says that there’s a lot of great reasons to own one.

“[I sell them] to people with DUIs or no license at all, or people who don’t want to ride the bus anymore,” says Hee. “I had a gentleman here who said he was paying $200 per month in taxi fare so something like this was just super for him.”

Hee caters to clients who work in Winnipeg’s downtown core who are tired of paying for parking. For others, it’s about the high cost of fuel. Some of her customers drive their e-scooters right through the coldest winter months.

“The battery is really the only expense you’ll have in terms of maintenance,” says Hee. “There’s no tune-ups, no oil changes, no gas, no insurance, and no parking [costs].”

The lifespan of the battery is about five to eight years and a replacement battery comes in at around $400 to $500.

History of the Power-Assisted Scooter

It’s tempting to believe that technology like self-propelled scooters are a sign of advanced times. In reality, though, records show that they go back as far as the early 1900s.

Originally known as autopeds, the self-propelled scooters had small gas-powered motors near the front or back. Apart from that, the historical models look remarkably similar to the stand scooters being sold in 2023.

Amelia Earhart owned one and some of a U.S. postal service was known to use them for city mail delivery.

Brenda Sawatzky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Niverville Citizen