As motor-assisted scooters, bikes, and mopeds become a familiar sight across San Francisco, researchers at UC San Francisco want to know how these devices are affecting injuries in the city.
Anecdotally, researchers say they have seen an increase in both minor and major injuries as technology sends pedestrians on one, two, three or four wheels into the street, accelerating to speeds of 15 to 30 miles per hour.
“It’s not just technology anymore,” said Catherine Juillard, MD, MPH, a trauma surgeon at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center (ZSFG). “It becomes an issue of public health.”
In the city, a temporary ban on rental electronic scooters likely will be lifted soon, allowing a potential 2,500 vehicles back on the streets. They’re unlocked with smartphone apps and paid by the minute, and some people consider them a convenient way to navigate around traffic or skip a long walk.
But so far, there is no good way to track the injuries – from sprains and scrapes to concussions – that come from these new modes of transportation. ZSFG already collects extensive data on injuries and ailments throughout San Francisco and northern San Mateo County, but the researchers want an improved registry to tackle nuances.
The established categories for reporting accidents lump together “scooter crash,” “squirrel attack,” and plenty of “other” accidents, says UCSF’s Christopher Colwell, MD, the chief of emergency medicine at ZSFG.
The two researchers are collaborating with the Department of Public Health’s Vision Zero initiative – a project meant to eliminate traffic deaths – to find out how these new transportation methods are affecting public health and what needs to be done to prevent injuries big and small.
“The idea is not to come into this with preconceived notions of right or wrong, or safe or unsafe,” said Juillard. “We don’t have any data yet – just anecdotes.”
In addition to questions of taxonomy – is a “hoverboard” in the same category as a unicycle? Should an electric kick scooter be a separate category from a sit-down motor scooter? – Juillard wants to know if injuries are more likely with app-based shared devices compared to privately-owned devices. Who are the users who get injured most frequently, asks Colwell: school-aged children, intoxicated adults, tourists?
“We’d never say we shouldn’t be using these devices at all,” said Colwell. “But we want to know how to do it safely.”