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Scooter company reps scolded by Oregon legislators over helmet law proposal

Matthew Kopko from Bird testifying at a committee hearing on February 13th.


Matthew Kopko with Bird Rides (L), and Jonathan Hopkins from Lime.

Senators Lew Frederick (L) and Cliff Bentz.

What was expected to be just another ho-hum hearing on one of thousands of bills working their way through Oregon’s 2019 legislative session, turned out to be anything but.

“What I’m hearing seems to be a bit counter-intuitive from a safety perspective.”
— Rep. Caddy McKeown, Co-Chair Joint Committee on Transportation

As we shared earlier today, House Bill 2671 seeks to require helmets for electric scooter riders 15 years of age or younger. Currently all e-scooter riders are required to wear a helmet. Backers of this bill — which include scooter companies, The Street Trust and Forth Mobility (an Oregon-based electric vehicle advocacy group) — say they merely want to harmonize the scooter law with the existing bicycle law which makes helmet use optional for everyone 16 years and older.

They say the existence of an all-ages helmet law leads to unequal enforcement against the very people most likely to need and appreciate scooters, and it could stymie adoption of scooters and other micromobility devices in the future.

“This bill creates consistency between green transportation modes,” said Jonathan Hopkins, a director of strategic development for Lime, during testimony in front of the Joint Committee on Transportation on February 13th, “Bikes and scooters are providing the same function, on the same number of wheels, at the same speed, and at the same places. While we always recommend users wear helmets, we also think users should be treated equally under the law when using very similar mobility tools.”

PBOT data from the recent pilot found that 90 percent of riders didn’t wear a helmet even though it’s required by Oregon law.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Hopkins was joined on a panel of scooter company reps by Jordan Bice and Matthew Kopko of Bird Rides. They came armed with data and talking points largely taken from the findings of the City of Portland’s successful e-scooter pilot program that wrapped up last year.

But state lawmakers weren’t having it. None of the half-dozen or so committee members who spoke during the hearing were impressed. Some of them even lectured the panelists with an admonishing tone the likes of which I’ve never heard in a legislative hearing before. The exchanges underscored the skepticism lawmakers have toward this new mode of transportation and toward the corporate lobbyists trying to make it more accessible.

The first one came from Senator Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario). Bentz touted his experience as a bicycle rider and said he knows people who’ve had crashes. “Had they not been wearing helmets they would have been dead,” he said, before adding, “And I mean it,” for emphasis. Bentz also expressed that if a low-income person who’s on Oregon Health Plan crashes and sustains a head injury, the bill for their care will, “Be on us.”

“So I’m asking, what are you guys, as an industry, doing to help solve this problem?” Bentz asked the panel.

Kopko, Bird’s director of public policy, began to respond. “We have to be mindful of the fatality and safety risks of automobiles as opposed to these type of vehicles,” he said; but was abruptly interrupted by Bentz, who sounded a bit annoyed:

“I want you to compare the number of scooters to the number of cars. Because you didn’t. You’re equating that we have exactly the same number of scooters on the road as we do cars. We have a gazillion more cars on the road than scooters. So don’t do that. Please don’t do that again. I suffered through it earlier [they’d met in Bentz’s office prior to the hearing] and I don’t want to do it again.”

Here’s video of the exchange:

Then Committee Co-Chair Rep. Caddy McKeown (D-Coos Bay) followed up on Bentz’s comments. “There’s an old adage.. ‘Whether the pitcher hits the stone or the stone hits the pitcher, it’s going to be bad for the pitcher,’ that’s what happens when your head hits the concrete,” she said.

Then McKeown continued:

“You say you’ve been providing helmets for people to use, which implies to me you understand the danger and the possible risk of riding these vehicles. And I applaud you for that; but I also hear you saying you’d prefer we not require it. What I’m hearing seems to be a bit counter-intuitive from a safety perspective.”

To which Kopko replied,

“We are very supportive of helmet use. What we’re talking here about is the diff between encouraging helmet use and mandating it by law. There’s a risk of disparate enforcement and how the helmet requirement would limit uptake of this new mode… We agree helmets should be used whenever possible… For us it’s about the consistency of laws across micromobility solutions.”

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Then there was a very tense exchange (in video above) between the Lime representative Jonathan Hopkins and Senator Lew Frederick (D-Portland).

Hopkins:

“There are certain communities that will have less access to helmets and therefore are more severely impacted by law enforcement efforts. Those happen to be the very same communities that are close to freeways or have lower lifespans by up to 10-15 years because of CO2 emissions. So there are areas where these tools have the potential to dramatically effect on our planet, peoples’ life spans, our health, and the health of our community. If there’s inequitable enforcement, you’re going to have communities that can afford helmets riding scooters and riding bikes more, and communities that are suffering from worse air quality and everything else, riding them less. And that actually exacerbates the very same problems they’ve been suffering from for decades.”

Frederick:

“I’m going to try to be kind about this. I appreciate you being concerned about disparate enforcement. Don’t use that as your argument. Please. I get a little tired of that… The next time someone will tell me that we’re looking at kids who are ‘at-risk’ and that’s why we’re doing this. Don’t do that. That doesn’t work. The issue we’re talking about now is safety. I live next to Lloyd Center and I saw a lot of scooters and I saw very few black folks on scooters. I saw very few older folks on scooters. The folks who were on scooters were of a particular economic class and race and particular age as well…. I’d suggest you speak to the safety issues. I would ask that you speak specifically to the safety issues and try not to act as though this is an issue where you’re trying to help the other social issues that we have in the community. You’re talking about transportation. It’s going to make you money, so let’s be clear about that. It’s not just an issue of trying to be helpful.. I’m not upset about you making money; but don’t use the other things to obscure that. Please.”

And Kopko got the last word:

“We have data that shows positive views of scooters increase as you go further down the economic ladder. The data also shows that people of color had a higher positive view than white people of scooter usage. I also want to note the affordability component here: When you can get a ride across town for one-fourth or one-fifth the price of Uber or other modes, it does have an impact for people. There are a lot of affordability and equity benefits for this solution.”

With exchanges like this it became clear the bill was in trouble and the hearing wasn’t going well for its supporters.

Another issue that came up (first from an ODOT Transportation Safety Division staffer, then from Co-Chair McKeown) was concern that the way the bill is written, people might get the wrong impression that people under 16 years old are allowed to use electric scooters even though current law prohibits them from riding one whether they wear a helmet or not.

After an hour-long discussion and with committee leaders like McKeown, Frederick, and Bentz clearly not enthused about the idea of loosening helmet regulations for scooter riders, committee Co-Vice-Chair Brian Boquist (R-Dallas) wrapped things up by saying, “There’s an immense amount of work to do on this. It’s not ready for prime-time at the moment.” That sentiment was echoed by McKeown when she said, “I have great concerns about this. What I think we’re doing is going a bit backwards here.”

There are no other hearings or work sessions current scheduled for this bill. Learn more about it here.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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