Column: Bird scooters — so much fun, so damn dangerous
Girls ride across Pacific Avenue on a single Bird scooter as another Bird rider crosses their path in Venice on July 5, 2018. Double riders and riding without helmets are illegal when using the Bird scooter. According to the Bird rental agreement, riders must be 18 years old to operate the scooters.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
A Bird scooter rider cruises alongside traffic on Pacific Avenue in Venice on July 5, 2018. Riding without a helmet is illegal when using the Bird scooter.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Pedestrians move out of the way for a pair of Bird scooter riders who cruise on the sidewalk along Washington Boulevard in Marina del Rey on July 5, 2018. It is illegal for Bird operators to ride on sidewalks.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
A helmetless Bird rider picks up his fallen water bottle while trying to cross Pacific Avenue in Venice on July 5, 2018.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
A helmetless Bird rider makes his way past a bicyclist on Windward Avenue in Venice on July 5, 2018.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Huy Nguyen, 17, an exchange student from Vietnam, uses a Bird scooter as a bench while getting a bite to eat along Windward Avenue in Venice on July 5, 2018.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
A helmetless Bird rider buzzes along through traffic on Washington Boulevard in Marina del Rey on July 5, 2018.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
A Bird rider carries two extra Bird scooters on Washington Boulevard in Marina del Rey on July 5, 2018.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Daniela Rivera was standing in the alley in front of my garage in Venice, her eyes red and teary. Her knees were covered in blood, which was dripping down her legs.
She was holding the handlebars of a Bird scooter. It seemed as if Evan Reiner, her boyfriend, was coaxing her to get back on. They were my daughter’s age, mid-20s.
I got out of my car, opened a camping chair and told Rivera to sit down. I’m no first responder, but I knew she was soon going to be in a lot of pain. And I knew she definitely should not be riding that thing.
I brought out warm compresses, antibiotic ointment, bandages and Advil. Reiner tenderly administered first aid, while I fetched three vodka rocks. After an hour or so, Rivera, an actress, was feeling better. She and Reiner, a musician and butcher, took off, leaving the Bird in my alley.
When Bird electric scooters began showing up around Santa Monica and Venice last fall, they really tickled me. The concept was so liberating: unlock the scooter with your phone, then zoom off, ditching it wherever you fancy.
But then I crashed. A bicyclist with headphones didn’t hear me yelling when she turned in front of me on the bike path. I went down on both knees. My head smacked the concrete. Thank God I was wearing the helmet that Bird sent me for free. Without it, I would have cracked my cheekbone. I have not ridden a Bird since.
I often hear people claim electric scooters are just as safe as bicycles. I don’t think so.
“The electric motor gives you instant acceleration, instant torque,” said Luis Levy, who owns a Santa Monica PR and marketing agency and is not a fan of Birds. Levy, who grew up riding a gas-powered scooter in Brazil, was almost run down by a Bird last March when he and his wife were walking on Fourth Street in Santa Monica during a light rain. “I heard a noise like someone skidding and turned around and see a guy on a Bird, his wheels locked, coming at us fast.”
The Bird business model, created by former Lyft and Uber executive Travis VanderZanden, is bolstered by the absolutely transparent fiction that people will abide by the rules.
Few riders don helmets, which are required. Lots of people ride double — even with small children — which is verboten. People ditch them on sidewalks, creating hazards for pedestrians. You’re supposed to be at least 18 and have a driver’s license to ride a Bird, a requirement that is routinely flouted.
Now the California Legislature appears to be ready to sign off on a new law that would allow anyone 18 and older to ride without helmets. Bird is the bill’s sponsor.
Amid an avalanche of unflattering publicity, Bird has also launched what it calls a pledge to “Save Our Sidewalks” and has asked the CEOs of other similar companies — Limebike, Ofo, Mobike and Jump — to sign on. Each company would commit to reducing street clutter by putting their bikes and scooters only where they are used, to refrain from expanding unless vehicles are used three times a day, and to remitting $1 per vehicle per day to cities for bike lanes and safety programs.
“We have all seen the results of out-of-control deployment in China,” wrote VanderZanden. “Huge piles of abandoned and broken bicycles, over-running sidewalks, turning parks into junkyards, and creating a new form of pollution … We cannot let this happen to our cities.”
So far, says Bird, only VanderZanden has signed on.
When I tweeted out a request to hear from people who had been in a Bird-related crash, I got an earful.
In March, a 39-year-old Los Angeles mother of six named Sharona Kaplan swerved to avoid a toddler who had run in front of her Bird on the beachside bike path in Santa Monica. Kaplan fell forward, breaking both bones in her right arm. Three days later, a surgeon put plates and pins in her arm.
Though she is eventually expected to make a full recovery, she has physical therapy twice a week and has been unable to pick up her baby, who was 8 months old at the time of the crash. Her health insurance says her car insurance should pay her medical bills; her car insurance says it won’t cover a crash on a two-wheeled vehicle.
UCLA senior Zach Johnson was asleep in his Westwood apartment when he was awakened by police officers who told him that someone had thrown a Bird scooter through the rear window of his 2010 Jetta, parked on Landfair Avenue.
He traipsed outside in his pajamas to find a Bird half in his car and half out. He ended up paying $300 to have the window replaced. After he sent the company the scooter’s ID number — at Bird’s request — the company stopped responding to him.
Probably the most distressing story came from a Westside tech entrepreneur who did not want me to use her name because she is contemplating suing Bird. She and her 7-year-old son were walking on a sidewalk at UCLA when a Bird rider crashed into her at full speed, briefly knocking her unconscious. “My bad,” she recalled the young man saying before he rode away. Her doctor likened the force of impact to being tackled by a football player.
Her concussion has caused her to miss work and lose money. “I’m sure they are going to say they have zero liability if someone behaves irresponsibly,” she told me. “But if they know it’s a somewhat dangerous product, isn’t it evil of them to do that?”
In emails she provided to me, she asked Bird to identify the rider to her and ban him from future use. Bird would only say that it had taken appropriate measures, and refused to divulge the rider’s name or any other information to her.
(A Bird spokeswoman told me the company investigates all complaints but does not reveal rider data “absent a formal legal process.”)
Hannah Dewit is the only Bird rider I have ever met who actually used the scooter the way the company intended, to cover that “last mile” between public transportation and her office.
But as she pointed out, the scooter does not replace a car, as its proponents always proclaim. Despite what enlightened urban planners would like to believe, the Bird and its various relatives mainly replace walking.
A few months ago, Dewit, 23, who lives downtown, was scootering on a sidewalk from her Santa Monica office to the Expo Line after work. As she rode down a curb cut to cross the street, she encountered uneven pavement. Her backpack shifted, and she tumbled into the street, breaking her arm near her shoulder.
“What would be the point of telling Bird?” she said when I asked if she had alerted the company. She accepts responsibility for the accident. “I’m sure that in the agreement, I signed over my ability to sue them, otherwise they couldn’t function as a company because everyone would be suing them for everything.”
The other day, Luis Levy sent me links to two crash videos. One was a minor Bird-on-Lime collision on the bike path where Venice meets Santa Monica. The other was the aftermath of a more serious accident on Monday. Paramedics were loading a downed Bird rider onto a stretcher.
“I’m terrified someone is going to die,” Levy said.
Me too. And it’s probably just a matter of time.
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