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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 August 2005, 11:55 GMT 12:55 UK
Life savers or leg breakers?
By Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News website disability affairs correspondent

Their users are mockingly called silver-haired racers and hell's grannies, but mobility scooters were involved in eight deaths last year. So are they getting a bad reputation?

Whether you're pro or anti, disabled, elderly or young, the mobility scooter certainly arouses passions.

Scooter users themselves see their steeds as an absolute necessity, without which they would enjoy very little mobility.

Disabled people tend to be split between those who wish they had bought one years ago and others who see scooter users as wheelchair users in denial.

Then there are the likes of Bob Russell, Liberal Democrat MP for Colchester, who believe a machine that can weigh 100kg and travel at up to 8mph is a serious danger to other pavement and road users.

'Mishaps'

Photo of woman using scooter to cross a ford
Scooters seem to be navigating troubled waters
The scooter may, in fact, be a victim of its own popularity. Increasing numbers of the growing elderly population find that trips to the shops, visits to friends or doctors' appointments are all much easier with the aid of an electric buggy.

Eighty-four year-old Margaret Thompson says a scooter has made a lot of difference to her life since her husband can no longer drive.

"I use it for the local shops two or three times a week, but I don't go very far because there are some very busy roads around here," she says.

Although she has never hit anyone, Mrs Thompson does confess to having had "a few mishaps" with shop displays.

I think it's a shame when people get conned into buying a scooter because in some way wheelchairs have such a negative image
Sian Vasey

One of the main areas of concern among safety campaigners is the buoyant second-hand scooter market, where people are able to buy them regardless of mechanical condition or the machine's suitability for their particular needs.

"Often the machines are too big or the wrong type for the user," says Mr Russell. "We need to make sure the people using them are able to do so safely in their own interests and, indeed, in the interest of others either on the road or on the pavement."

Although the larger, road-going scooters are classified as road vehicles, they need no MOT and the driver does not need to pass a test or have third party insurance.

Such is the confusion surrounding their status that one man who was convicted of drink driving - having had several pints at the local pub - later discovered there was no legal base for charging him.

In denial?

A heavy metal object, driven at 8mph and piloted by someone whose reactions may not be as sharp as they once were, could well be considered hazardous. But it is important to keep the risk in proportion, says Kevin Clinton of the Royal Society for Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA).

"They are important in helping people to maintain their mobility, we don't want to discourage the use of scooters or powered wheelchairs," he says.

Training scooter drivers is the way to improve safety, he adds. Bob Russell would like to go further and have a mandatory competence threshold, a bit like the cycling proficiency test. And he says scooter owners must carry adequate insurance.

"Eight fatalities and a thousand injuries last year is not to be sneezed at."

Photo of Karen Sheader on her scooter
Karen Sheader is inspired by hers

The safety issue was brought into sharp focus in June following an inquest verdict of accidental death of an 88-year-old Eastbourne man, who was struck by a scooter apparently decked out in Formula One livery. But Mr Russell admits that compared with the number of road deaths, the risk from scooters is far lower.

Several scooter drivers complain that pedestrians do not see them because they are at a lower height than most pavement users. And because the machines have electric engines they seem to glide along silently and can catch people unaware, especially when approached from behind.

It is among disabled people, rather than the elderly, that an interesting debate opens up about the merits of scooters. Some politicised disability rights campaigners consider scooters a sort of foil, a way of being mobile without being a wheelchair user.

"I think there's some strange sort of hierarchy which means that you will be perceived differently in a scooter," says Sian Vasey, director of the Ealing Centre for Independent Living.

Image

She thinks scooters can offer less mobility because of their size, are sometimes less stable and frequently deny the user the option of going on public transport.

"I think it's a shame when people get conned into buying a scooter because in some way wheelchairs have such a negative image," she says.

Disabled singer-songwriter, Karen Sheader, is so pleased with hers that she's even written a ditty about it. For Karen - who is visually-impaired as well as having limited mobility - her Breeze 4 is the next best thing to having a car.

Happiness for her is zipping along the seafront at Hartlepool listening to music on her MP3 player. She says that she chose the Breeze because of its futuristic styling. Image is an important factor, especially given the scooter's popularity among older people.

"I don't want to look like I'm riding a granny mobile," she says.

Karen Turner on her scooter in a supermarket
Karen Turner wishes she'd bought one sooner

Image also counts for Karen Turner, who was diagnosed with MS in her 20s and who is determined not to become a full-time wheelchair user. Having got a job at TGA - one of the UK's larger scooter distributors - she was eventually persuaded to borrow one for the weekend.

"I kicked myself because for the previous two years I'd been effectively housebound," she says.

Even so, it took some time before she stopped feeling self-conscious about using it.

"I was 34 and everybody on scooters is over 60, I was embarrassed in case I met anyone I knew. I thought they would either avoid me or feel sorry for me."

She now overcomes the public transport problem by having a small, fold-up scooter for travelling and a larger, more robust model for walking the dog and other trips closer to home.

Whatever image people are keen to acquire or avoid, it's probably safe to predict that there will be more scooters on our streets over the next few years as the population ages. Perhaps we can even look forward to rugged off-roaders in camouflage colours or trendy about-town numbers.

But as they jostle for space on our crowded roads and pavements, they will have to learn to mind their manners and abide by the rules.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

If these massive and (in most cases) poorly-piloted electric scooters are allowed on the pavement, why am I not allowed to use my electric-assisted Micro scooter?
Benji, Southampton, UK

Due to the nature of the machines, I do not think it unwise that one should have third party insurance against causing inury to others or damage to property. Saying that, I also believe the all cyclists should also have third party insurance with the amount of 'near misses' I have encountered in a 'Pedestrian Zone' just recently. People just need to be sensible about this.
Jim Handrell, Kent

I'm able-bodied and I've no problem at all with mobility scooters using the pavement. In my experience their drivers are generally careful and considerate. Those who are worried about pedestrian safety - including the police - would do far better to focus their attention on getting law-breaking cyclists off our pavements and back on the road where they belong.
Chris B, Bedford, England

It's worth pointing out that these are the only wheeled vehicles allowed to travel on the pavement. Buggies, skateboards, rollerskates, rollerblades and Segways (if anyone actually has one) are all illegal on the pavement. Bicycles are normally not allowed, although many towns and cities have a confusing array of shared cycle paths.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

Having been hit by one in the food department of a well known department store I am in favour of some form of proficiency test and third party insurance. It hurt.
Sue Monks, Jersey. CI

Before we condemn the scooter as a pavement killer, lets compare its accident statistics with that of bicycles ridden at speed without due care and attention on our pavements.
keith, Braintree

I'm all in favour of the principle - anything that helps people keep their independence must be a good thing. Presumably as battery and motor technology improve these things will get faster, so perhaps we need a licence/test system based on speed or power, similar to the current motorcycle laws. Why not allow anyone to use a small scooter limited to 3 or 4 mph (which after all is equivalent to a good walking pace) and then anyone who wants to use a bigger/faster machine must prove their competence and ability to control it.
Chris, Bristol, UK

Having been a wheelchair user for years, I found it extremely difficult to use on uneven pavements and manouver around most stores, even though it is a very narrow chair. So I bought a lightweight (it only weighs 28 kilos) foldable trike, which fits in the boot of cars and taxis, for use when I visit shopping centres. The seat is higher than my chair, so easier for me to see and be seen. I also fitted a lound bell to make sure I could be heard. At a maximum speed of 8 kilometres/hour, it cannot be classed as a danger to anyone. I also have a large 4-wheel electric road buggy, but only use it in the tiny village where I live, which has very strict speed reductions for ALL vehicles. I now also have an electric wheelchair for use in my bungalow. Am I disabled? Yes. Am I old? Not really - I don't consider early sixties to be old. Am I a danger to pedestrians? Definitely not. My wheels are my legs. My freedom. My independence.
Julie, Not given

While mobility scooters are a great thing and can often transform the lives of the users. I think there is need for some sort of test before people are allowed to use them. The reason I say this is because I see so many users on the main roads, who think they are in a car. They just do not know how much they are putting themselves and others at risk. These mobility scooters are NOT made for road use! Users should have it made clear they are not for road use. Police seem to turn a blind eye to this happening. Please please Do not treat the scooter as a car for all our sakes.
joss, Doncaster

It seems a perfectly legitimate form of transport, for people how have restricted mobility - without which they would lack the freedom and independence we all take for granted.Perhaps users should be required to pass some form of 'driving test'. With dangerous driving resulting in points, fines or a ban!
Anon, Birmingham

Two friends and I had a lucky escape from a mobility scooter. We were just exiting a shopping centre in Blackpool when an elderly lady on a scooter came hurtling down the ramp towards us shouting that her brakes weren't working. She swerved to avoid us at the last minute and crashed into the sliding door and the glass window behind it shattering both. She was unharmed but shaken up (as were we). It must have cost a fortune to replace the doors/windows. It appeared that it wasn't that the machine was faulty, but that the lady in question didn't know how to use it properly. Maybe there should be some sort of basic training that must be completed before allowing people to buy/use the scooters.
Charlie, Bristol

Just as with mothers and pushchairs, I wish they would learn that they do not have automatic priority over everyone else in making their way along the streets. A bit of respect and courtesy would be appreciated.
Jim, Birmingham, UK

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