Electric scooter crashes on the rise in Denver

Electric scooters are newly popular in cities around the U.S. In Urgent Care clinics, providers are seeing head and hand injuries. To stay safe, medical experts advise riders to wear helmets, skip alcohol and marijuana and stay off phones and city streets.
September 14th, 2018

Don’t ride electric scooters and longboards on city streets.

Photo of a Lime electric scooter with a person's feet showing
Electric scooters have proliferated in cities around the U.S. So, too, have accidents. Health experts say riders need to be careful, wear helmets and stay off city streets.

That’s the advice Phil Schaefer gives now after suffering a painful lesson.

“Learn from me. There’s a time and place for these: daytime in parks or on mixed bike paths,” said Schaefer, 33, who works in the Neurosciences Center at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. “I’m going to stop riding my electric board in town. Every time I rode, I had a near miss. I almost got hit every single time.”

Then came his unfortunate clash with a car in August that resulted in serious injuries.

Experts at the UCHealth Urgent Care at Steele Street in Denver’s Cherry Creek neighborhood say Schaefer is far from alone. They’ve seen an uptick in accidents over the last couple of months from new electric scooters that arrived in Denver this spring, along with stand-up Segway touring vehicles that have been around much longer.

Schaefer can’t drive at times because of his health. He had a terrible ski accident in a terrain park at Copper Mountain back when he was 17. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, and, as a result of the accident, now has epileptic seizures that flare up and affect him about once every six months.

A man rides on an electric longboard while filming himself with a ski pole
Phil Schaefer riding on his electric longboard. He’s holding a ski pole with a GoPro mounted on it to film his ride. Schaefer had a bad crash in August and won’t ride on city streets now since it’s too dangerous. Photo courtesy of Phil Schaefer.

(Click here to see a video of Schaefer riding his electric longboard.)

Because of his accidents, Schaefer is also a major proponent of helmets for cyclists, skateboarders, scooter riders and skiers.

To get around, Schaefer loves riding a longboard. He has an electric one that enables him to cruise fast – up to 20 miles an hour.

Electric longboards, scooters and bikes have become increasingly popular in cities across the U.S. with devices with names like Bird, Lime and Skip popping up in busy urban areas. Commuters can hop on them to cruise part of the way to work. Or young people ride on them instead of driving or taking an Uber or Lyft.

As the transportation devices have grown in popularity, so, too, have injuries. (Click here to see a story about electric scooter accidents around the U.S.)

Schaefer likes the idea of an alternative to riding the bus or using a ride share service.

But Denver, like many cities, doesn’t allow the devices on streets or in designated bike lanes. Riders are supposed to zip along on sidewalks, but that’s dangerous because they’re riding much faster than pedestrians.

A beautiful night. An unfortunate crash.

Schaefer ran into trouble — and a car — on a beautiful evening in August. He lives in the Congress Park neighborhood in Denver and rode his longboard just 10 blocks to grab a burrito with friends one night.

On his way home, late at night he was wearing a helmet and a bright headlamp so cars could see him. He was enjoying the warm summer air and riding near the Denver Botanic Gardens when a construction zone led to trouble.

Barricades and fencing blocked the sidewalk, so Schaefer was riding in the street. The barriers also blocked his view of a stop sign. Schaefer thought he was clear to cross the intersection, so he kept going, and unfortunately, slammed into a car. The collision knocked Schaefer down and the car’s back passenger wheel ran over his left leg from his shin to his toes.

“It wasn’t as bad as it could have been,” Schaefer said.

Thankfully, because of his helmet, he didn’t suffer head injuries as many people do when they get hurt on electric scooters and longboards.

But, Schaefer had some bad breaks on both the front and back of his tibia, where it meets the ankle. He also chipped off part of his calcaneus bone, the bump on the side on the ankle, and he suffered extensive ligament and tendon damage.

A Denver police officer responded to the scene and gave Schaefer a $90 ticket for going through a stop sign. He ended up spending several hours in the ER, endured a lot of pain and has been in a boot ever since. He’s due to start physical therapy in a couple of weeks.

Uptick in accidents. Alcohol and cell phones aggravate injuries.

Megan Hubbard and Valorie Baxter are both physician assistants at the Steele Street Urgent Care in Cherry Creek. Since the center is open 7 days a week and until 8 p.m. every day, they see plenty of people who have just had accidents.

Headshot of Valorie Baxter, who advises people to be careful when riding electric scooters.
Valorie Baxter is a physician assistant at the UCHealth Urgent Care – Steele Street cllinic in Denver. After seeing head and hand injuries from electric scooter injuries in recent months, she’s urging riders to wear helmets and be very cautious when riding.

In recent months, both have seen an increase in patients who have crashed on motorized scooter crashes. Injuries have ranged from road rash to bad hand fractures, head injuries and concussions.

“The scooters travel up to 20 miles per hour. Imagine traveling at that speed, hitting a pothole and being hurtled onto hard cement or even crashing into another vehicle. Now, imagine not wearing a helmet,” Baxter said.

As a result of crashes like those, Baxter and her colleagues have seen head injuries and blunt trauma.

Baxter tries to make patients feel better by calling falls “gravity attacks.”

“There’s been an increase in use of these scooters in various cities and it’s a growing market in Denver. The more scooters that are out there, the more gravity attacks we will have,” Baxter said.

Hand injuries can also be bad, both women said.

“We try to brace ourselves with our hands when we fall. Sometimes we fall directly on the handlebars and it pulls our thumbs apart and causes damage to the ulnar collateral ligaments,” Baxter said.

Hand injuries can really impair people since it’s typical to fall on your dominant hand. If the injuries don’t heal well over time, they can worsen and cause complications well after the initial accident.

As with all vehicles, using alcohol and marijuana or your cell phone while trying to ride a scooter can make accidents worse, both women said.

Headshot of Megan Hubbard, who advises people to wear helmets, stay off phones and don't drink and ride electric scooters.
Megan Hubbard is a physician assistant at the UCHealth Urgent Care – Steele Street. She and colleagues have seen an uptick in accidents from electric scooters.

“Some of the patients I saw were using their phones. They want to record everything and take pictures as they ride,” Hubbard said.

Whether you’re driving a car, a bike or a scooter, you have to pay close attention.

“Obey the laws. Pay attention to street signs,” Hubbard said.

She sees people getting into trouble when they navigate from sidewalks into streets.

“Crossing the street is tricky. You have to stay off your phone, wear a helmet, be careful and pay attention,” Hubbard said.

“And definitely do not drink and drive any motorized vehicle,” Baxter said. “Absolutely, wear a helmet. And, unless you’re in an area that is very well lit, I would avoid riding at night. You won’t be able to see far in front of you.

“It’s just like a motorcycle,” Baxter said. “You don’t have that armor and protection around you. As much fun as everyone has on scooters, I’d remind them to be responsible and vigilant.”

A sense of freedom, but dangerous too

As for Schaefer, he said he’s feeling much better now.

He feels lucky that his accident wasn’t worse and wants to spread the word among other young people.

“I’ve seen many people on the rental electric scooters who are riding in the street, not obeying traffic laws, not wearing helmets and buzzed from the bars. It’s cheaper than Uber, so people will start to take these home from bars instead of taking Uber or Lyft,” Schaefer said.

When he sees people riding carelessly, Schaefer wishes he could deliver them a message.

“Obey the traffic laws and don’t ride on downtown Denver streets,” said Schaefer. “Only ride them on bike paths. Unfortunately, that’s just the way it is.”

Schaefer understands why the motorized devices are so popular.

“They give you that sense of freedom. And they’re cheaper than riding Uber,” Schaefer said.

Still, he’s going to play it safe and stay far away from city streets.

He enjoys practicing slalom turns in Denver’s City Park and he’ll still ride in the mountains.

“I love to ride my electric longboard on the bike path around Lake Dillon and in Vail near the golf course,” Schaefer said.

He doesn’t think government entities can adequately regulate motorized scooters and longboards. Young people who love them will need to step up.

“It’s our responsibility to be responsible,” Schaefer said.