Newly acquired injury reports from Spin scooter riders detail serious, and in some cases, life-threatening injuries.
While the company stressed that the number was few, riders who were injured suffered from broken bones, severe head injuries, and one woman, who did not report her injury to the company, suffered a lacerated liver from her fall.
The list of injuries reported by Spin was obtained through a Right-to-Know request filed with the City of Pittsburgh.
Determining a definite number of injuries is not possible without the ability to contact riders because some riders said they had accidents but did not say if they were injured. Some listed nonspecific injuries while complaining about the condition of the scooter: “Breaks [sic] did not work I got injured cause I couldn’t stop,” one rider wrote.
The city’s Department of Mobility & Infrastructure (DOMI), which has been overseeing the pilot program, has stressed the safety of the scooters. DOMI director Kim Lucas told Pittsburgh City Council in April that out of the nearly 1 million rides taken on Spin scooters there had only been “37 total reports of injury through the designated reporting systems. And zero fatalities.”
But Lucas knew there was a problem with the “reporting systems.”
On May 8, in a report on the pilot program to the state Senate Transportation Committee, DOMI reported that there had been 51 reports that riders had injured themselves or someone else, which the report stresses was one injury per 17,000 rides.
Spin has announced that if its permit to operate in Pittsburgh is renewed, it will deploy redesigned scooters with larger wheels, a wider floor, and a deeper shock absorber that should help prevent the catastrophic injuries that riders have suffered when hitting potholes.
Falling through the cracks
One of the policies laid out for riders when they sign up to use Spin is that they are supposed to report accidents and injuries to the company as soon as possible.
But Jennifer Vining of Roanoke, Indiana, says she didn’t know how to do that.
Vining came to Pittsburgh on June 10, 2022, to attend the Kenny Chesney concert at what was then Heinz Field. The night before the concert, she was walking from the Andy Warhol Museum to a bar on the North Shore when she and a relative spotted a couple of scooters outside of PNC Park.
She says she thought it would be fun to ride the rest of the way, adding that she reasoned it would be safer to ride the scooters to the bar, before having drinks, than after, when it would be dangerous.
“I made it two blocks,” she says.
The scooter hit a pothole on West General Robinson Street and she flipped forward.
“It must have hit me in the ribs,” she says.
She still attended the concert but was bruised, sore and nauseated from her injuries. She says she also got sick repeatedly on the five-hour drive home.
Later that night, she went to an emergency room in Indiana where tests determined she had three lacerations to her liver. She says she may have also suffered a mild concussion and had a large bruise on her thigh. She was kept overnight for observation, then released the next day.
When asked if she reported her injuries to Spin, she says, “I didn’t know that that was an option.”
Chrissy Garretson’s son, Jake, reported his injury to Spin, but only because he was trying to obtain a refund for the $80 that Spin charged his credit card for a ride that ended minutes after it started. Jake, who is only using his first name to maintain some privacy while recovering from his injuries, left a bar in Oakland at 2 a.m. and rented a scooter because he did not want to wait for an Uber.
He was found unconscious by passersby on Neville Street on the railroad tracks and taken by ambulance to UPMC Presbyterian. There the emergency room staff discovered he had three skull fractures and a brain bleed. He had to have an emergency craniotomy; part of his skull was removed, the bleeding was stopped surgically and his skull was put back into place with a plate and screws.
His roommates, who had not seen him since the night before, filed a missing person report in the morning. Police told them he had been found on the railroad tracks and sent to the hospital. The roommates called UPMC Presbyterian, which would not release information on Jake, who was 21 at the time. His roommates called his mother at 8:45 a.m.; Garretson called the hospital and learned her son was in emergency surgery. She and her husband live across the state five hours away.
After maintaining her composure while getting her other children settled, Garretson says she cried all the way across the state as her husband drove.
Jake’s initial recovery was remarkable: he was talking by 2 p.m. the same day and released from the hospital in a matter of days without a need to stay in a rehabilitation hospital. But he has not fully recovered a year and a half later and his mother says he is still dealing with the effects of frontal lobe injuries and post-traumatic stress.
Garretson says if Spin had not charged him the $80, they never would have reported the injury. The company quickly refunded the charge.
More injury reports
Jake’s accident report was found through a Right-to-Know request to the city for the list of injuries reported by Spin. There were 103 entries labeled “Accident/Injury” from the start of the scooter pilot program on July 1, 2021, through April 30, 2023. Some of the entries are blank, with just the date of the accident but no narrative as to what happened.
“I went to the ER and learned I broke my collarbone and I’m looking at minimum 6 weeks of recovery, possible surgery and time off work. Thank goodness I was wearing a helmet,” wrote one rider who crashed on Oct. 25, 2021. They rented the scooter because their car was in the shop.
Another asked for their money back on Sept. 15:
“My most recent ride was charged 43 dollars because it said I was on the Spin for 2 hours but actually I got into an accident and had to go to EMS trauma level 2 because either the Spin malfunctioned while I was riding or there was something on the road. Half of my face is scraped off and I have to get plastic surgery. Maybe the least you guys can do is cancel/waive this $43 trip fee because this is lawsuit-worthy. Thanks.”
Another rider was knocked unconscious, one suffered a broken foot, another a broken ankle, a third a broken shoulder. One rider said they suffered nerve damage in their hand, while another dislocated their jaw.
City Councilmember Barb Warwick says that when someone takes a scooter, it is usually a spur-of-the-moment decision, so the riders rarely have helmets, which could minimize some of the injuries.
Without clear data on injuries that have occurred, City Council instead has placed much of the focus of the problem with scooters on how riders park them.
Scooters are left in the middle of the sidewalks, if not by the riders, then by drivers who see the scooters in a parking space and toss them onto the sidewalk in order to park.
City Councilmember Erika Strassburger said she believes many of those problems could be rectified if the company required riders to either place the scooters into one of their docking stations or lock them up, so they wouldn’t fall across a sidewalk.
“That would solve about 90% of the problems,” says Strassburger.
Warwick says if the scooters were required to be locked to something, then they would wind up locked to stop signs and blocking sidewalks.
One of the requirements of the pilot program was that a report had to be delivered to the chairs of the Pennsylvania House and Senate Transportation committees. The report, delivered by DOMI, contained 20 pages of narrative, graphs and maps and another 58 pages of appendices, such as the permit for the operation of the scooters.
That report only became public in response to the Right-to-Know request.
In that report, DOMI states that collecting crash and injury data has been challenging. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) does not keep statistics on electric scooters.
“PennDOT crash data classifies e-scooters as a ‘pedestrian conveyance,’ which lumps them in with wheelchairs, mobility scooters, skateboards and roller skates,” the report says.
Later in the report, it states that the reporting of scooter crashes can also come to Spin by phone, email or the company’s app (which reports crashes to the city), or through the city’s 311 response line.
“Though the records include varying levels of detail from the individuals who originate them (with some providing no detail beyond selecting the category), 45 contain a clear indication that a rider was injured on their ride or injured somebody else, and another 6 reports are contained in other categories. The majority of injuries were to the riders themselves, but at least a few were to other sidewalk users with whom the scooters collided or who tripped on over improperly parked scooters. Altogether this represents about one reported injury per 17,000 rides.
“Additionally, it is recognized that incidents may occur without any reporting. Collectively, we cannot act on unverified or unreported incidents. This highlights a gap in reporting mechanisms. In addition to the data collected by Spin and the city, DOMI recently became aware of a fatality that took place after a Spin ride. DOMI is currently investigating the report but has yet to confirm the details,” the report states.
The fatality was that of 35-year-old Lawrence Chertik, who died from a ruptured spleen incurred in a scooter crash on Feb. 19 when he hit a pothole. Chertik’s death was not reported to the city by Spin because he died hours after crashing without filling out a form on Spin’s app. Chertik’s sister Kate has launched an online petition to ban e-scooters from Pittsburgh.
Fate rests with Pennsylvania General Assembly
The Spin scooters in Pittsburgh are part of a two-year pilot program that is due to end on June 30.
A current bill that was passed via the state Senate Transportation Committee would allow companies to provide rental scooters in every city in the state except Philadelphia.
The bill would not legalize the use of privately-owned scooters in the state. Instead, scooter drivers would have to rent the vehicles from approved vendors in each city that decides to run the program.
As the text of the Senate bill states: “An individual may not operate an electric low-speed scooter unless provided by a commercial electric scooter enterprise in a city of the second class or an authorized municipality.”
For instance in Pittsburgh, Spin is the vendor for the scooters. Spin paid $150 for its operating permit and agreed to certain conditions, such as responding to complaints about scooters that are poorly parked or blocking sidewalk access, keeping records of injuries incurred from scooter use and providing low-cost rides to people on public assistance.
Each city would work with its own vendors to develop its own scooter program. Allegheny County, in addition to Pittsburgh, has three third-class cities eligible for the program: Clairton, Duquesne and McKeesport.
Currently, in addition to the $150 permit fee, the City of Pittsburgh also receives 10 cents per ride. DOMI’s report on scooters to the state says the money from the rides, plus fines to the company for not meeting the requirements of how the vehicles would be distributed through the city, will add up to about $155,000 by the end of the two-year pilot. That money goes to infrastructure for bikes and scooters, such as the scooter corrals, and to support the discounted fares for rides in low-income neighborhoods and for people on public assistance.
John Lankford, Spin’s senior director for partnerships and policy, says the low-cost rides, which he called “the equity program,” are a highlight of the pilot program and provide needed rides in areas that lack access to public transit.
Spin recently sent emails to its most active riders asking them to support the Senate bill by writing letters to their Pittsburgh council members. The emails offered $100 in free rides to anyone who sent the letter, which was written for them with blanks for their council member’s name and for their signature. Riders only had to either blind copy Spin on the email or forward the sent email to the company.
One of those emails was sent to Lawrence Chertik, the rider who died on Feb. 20.
Lankford said the email campaign was developed because the company knows its riders are busy, so Spin wanted to give them a way to support the continuation of scooters in the city.
Strassburger says her office has received about 10 emails that match the Spin letters. She says they have not swayed her as she is not opposed to scooters in the city.
“I feel uncomfortable taking a mode of transportation away,” she says. “I’d like to improve it.”
Lankford says the scooters take the place of some car trips, in turn reducing emissions.
If the pilot ends and there is no extension of Spin’s permit, then the company’s operations would cease and it would collect all of the scooters across the city, Lankford says. If it continues, the company will start to replace the 1,500 scooters on Pittsburgh’s streets with the new safer model.