BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 10:57 GMT, Monday, 4 January 2010

A mobility scooter menace?

Mobility scooter

By Nick Holland

A number of high-profile accidents involving mobility scooters have raised concern that drivers cannot be prosecuted and caused some to float the idea of testing users.

With a top speed of 4mph for the mobility scooters designed to travel on pavements, you might think that it was hard for their users to drive dangerously.

No official statistics exist for the number of accidents involving the scooters, but there are tales from around the country of old ladies steering into shop windows, mobility scooters trundling along motorways and even people driving off railway platforms.

There have even been injuries to pedestrians. Last year two-year-old Madison McNair was knocked down by a 70-year-old woman driving a mobility scooter on a pedestrianised street in Doncaster.

Caught in the wheels of the machine, the toddler was dragged down the road as the driver carried on apparently unaware of what had happened. Since mobility scooters are exempt from the Road Traffic Act the police were powerless to act against the driver.

Class two vehicles with 4mph speed limit, designed to be used on pavements
Class three vehicles with 8mph speed limit can be used on pavement and road
4mph speed limit on pavements and pedestrian areas

The death of 90-year-old Lilian Macey in September led to no action by police against the scooter driver allegedly responsible.

The level of concern is such that in February a committee of MPs will begin an inquiry looking at safety implications. One of the issues they will examine is whether scooter drivers should get some kind of formal training before going out on to the streets.

The idea is already being put into practice by Norfolk Police and a handful of other forces. In Norfolk, impetus was generated by the volume of complaints about accidents being caused by the electric vehicles on Great Yarmouth's streets and pavements.

A combination of affordability and an aging population has led to a significant increase in the number of mobility scooters being driven around the town.

"In the market place if you speak to the traders they will always tell you a tale of their vegetables being knocked over or people being run into by mobility scooter users," says Penny Carpenter, of Norfolk Police.


Scooter school for mobility drivers

"Some people have even been banned from stores for knocking over aisles."

The resulting course has elements of a traditional driving test, something that one of the participants, Ken, passed years ago.

He has to glance over unfamiliar dials sunk into the dashboard in front of him. He leans forward to adjust the rear view mirror as his police instructor demonstrates how the indicators work and where to find the horn.

"Have you ever driven one of these before?" the instructor asks. "No," replies Ken. "This is my first time."

What I think we need is some kind of cycle proficiency test for mobility scooters
Jeff Ennis MP

A line of cones marks out the slalom course the 71-year-old has to weave his vehicle through. The cones are just the first in a whole series of obstacles.

"You mustn't run the cones over," says Ken's instructor as he steers his way slowly down the track laid out in an indoor hall on the outskirts of Great Yarmouth. "Think of them as people," he says.

Moments later there is a crunch of plastic as a back wheel clips a cone.

Slalom section out of the way, there is a tight right hander around a wheelie bin to get past followed by a sharp left into a narrow parking bay.

Life-size mannequins stand in awkward places around the course to simulate pedestrians on the High Street. Other hazards include roadwork signs, a step ladder and a speed bump.

Compared with a car the controls on a mobility scooter are fairly simple. One lever to go forward, another to go backwards. There are no brakes as such but they stop fairly quickly once the lever is released.

Crumpled cones

A dial on the dashboard controls the speed. You steer using the handlebars at the front. People who use them say they are easy to drive but judging by the number of crumpled cones on the test track there is more to it than meets the eye.

Model poses on scooter
Scooters do not have an image problem, but concern is rising over regulation

"Anyone can get a mobility scooter and you don't have to have a licence," says Ms Carpenter.

"There's no test involved. There's no legal requirement to have insurance and anybody can drive one with no training at all."

The courses, there have been two of them so far, aim to fill that gap. Improving users' handling skills and creating an awareness of road safety are all key, as is instilling a sense of pavement etiquette.

It takes about 25 minutes to complete, but there is no pass or fail. So far more than 50 people have volunteered to do it. And it is not just for beginners. The majority are people who have been using their scooters for years.

Shiela Adair, 64, is one of them. "Even though I've used a scooter before the course was ideal to learn about reversing."

But she believes that cyclists riding on the pavements are a bigger menace to pedestrians than mobility scooters. Besides, she argues, pedestrians often have themselves to blame for not looking where they are going.

"People tend to walk straight out in front of you especially coming out of shops," she says. "And at times I've had to just quickly stop so I don't hit them."

MP Jeff Ennis is hoping for a debate on the issue in the House of Commons later this month. "Although retailers do give some kind of training it is by no means mandatory," he says.

Three strikes

"So what I think we need is some kind of cycle proficiency test for mobility scooters."

On top of that he believes a "three-strikes-and-you-are-out" rule should be enforced to weed those who prove to be a danger to themselves and everyone else.

Unsurprisingly there is some dissent from users. Many agree something needs to be done to improve safety, but most are wary of any threat to take away their scooter and the freedom it affords them.

The Department for Transport has not indicated it will change the legislation, but pressure is mounting.

If anything is done, the problem will be in striking a balance between protecting the safety of individuals and the rights of mobility scooter users.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I'm 44 years old, a car driver with a clean licence, an occasional cyclist, a runner, and a daily dog walker. I used a mobility scooter for three months this summer due to a broken leg, and I wholly endorse moves to introduce some sort of test. Driving the scooter was completely unlike any of the modes of transport I normally use, and the fact that they appear slow lulls the driver into a false sense of security re: both their own safety and that of pedestrians. The experience also highlighted the appalling and, at times, downright dangerous state of our pavements.
Val, Petersfield

I remember being mowed into in John Lewis Newcastle by an elderly gentleman who merely carried on at the same speed through the shop without being stopped. I suffered bruising to say the least. I feel scooters should have a reasonable speed limit. I mean, where are they going in such a rush anyway? The gentlemen did not have any concern for anyone and literally ploughed into me because he could not get passed as they were demonstrating some item in the shop.
Connie Mackay, Norton Cleveland

I believe mobility scooters should *only* restore their users' parity with pedestrians - 4mph is a reasonably brisk walking pace, so why do they need 8mph? And why, if I'm walking along at a reasonable pace, should scooter users feel entitled to hoot me to get out of the way?
Brent Longborough, Abersychan, Wales

It's a matter of commonsense, consideration and courtesy. I'd be stuck indoors were it not for my scooter, but I make allowances and assume that nobody else can see me. Just as an assist, I have a bundle of tiny bells on my scooter, which sweetly alert folk to my presence.
Ann Prior, Exmouth, Devon, England

I made sure I was covered for public liability through my house insurance in respect of my mobility scooter. It didn't cost me anymore to do so. I have seen many bad drivers of these vehicles, they seem to think everyone should give way to them. That said, I would be prepared to take a course and to pay for a licence if necessary because the ability to get out into the fresh air means so much to me. I am a car driver by the way. Mums with children are a hazard these days because the children are mostly allowed to run free without restraints.
B Phillips, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

I totally agree with the idea of training for mobility scooter users and would go even further and make it law that they should have insurance so that anyone injured by them would be able to claim against them. Mobility scooters should be for those in real need of them, unfortunately this is not always the case.
Mike, Eastbourne

They are an absolute pain when given to the wrong people. We have a couple who ride as a tandem into the town on the roads, the pathways are wide enough for them to get to town, but like most of these users they feel it is there right to hold traffic up. This town has a bad enough traffic problem as it is!
Robyn, Lowestoft

Why does the government believe a license is the solution to everything? Why not just mandate that the scooters should have more safety features - such as a sensitive electric 'bumper' which on contact stops the scooter should do it, which fits around the outside perimeter of the scooter, a couple of inches / about half-wheel in height. And a speed limiter based on sensors detecting nearby objects. In stores / busy areas max speed could be limited to 2 mph, for example.
Anon, Edinburgh

The real problem is the number of people driving these at all. Most seem to be driven by younger obese people rather than the image portrayed in the article of the elderly using them to get out and about.
John , Harrogate

We in Balsall Common have a lot of these scooters, one in particular travels at about 20mph, it's been modified by the gentleman that drives it, although for people who are unable to walk these scooters are a great way to get about. They should be caring some sort of insurance and yes, they should have a test to see if they can handle one properly.
Johno, Balsall Common

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific