With increasingly popular, greener, urban transport solutions such as e-scooters currently not legal for road use, the law will need to change before their benefits can be realised, argues Weightmans LLP’s Philip Nicholas.
As the new government gets down to business, its progress against environmental targets will be firmly in the spotlight.
As well as developing and meeting any legally-binding air quality targets set out in its newly-proposed Environment Bill, the Government must continue to make progress against a national target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – a goal held to be one of the most stringent in the world.
Achieving these lofty ambitions, particularly when it comes to cleaner air, is likely to involve making improvements to our transport systems. And part of this process could involve considering how increasingly popular low and zero-emission transport options, such as e-scooters, can help improve urban mobility solutions.
But with current UK law not allowing for the use of e-scooters on public roads, it’s clear that legislation will need to change before their environmental benefits can be fully unlocked. Why is it not currently legal to use e-scooters on public roads, and what could the future hold for their legislation?
Under current laws, e-scooters are classified as ‘powered transporters’ - a type of vehicle that includes Segways, U-wheels and hoverboards.
Simply put, there is no specially-designed legal regime for powered transporters. This means that they are covered by the same laws and regulations that apply to all motor vehicles.
Under the Road Traffic Act (RTA) 1988, they must, therefore, comply with insurance requirements, technical standards, standards of use, payment of vehicle tax, licensing and registration.
It is also illegal for e-scooters to be ridden on a pavement, in a cycle lane, on bridleways or restricted byways.
The only place where they can legally be ridden is on private land, and with the landowner’s permission. E-bikes – by contrast – are governed by a different set of rules.
With the exception of Northern Ireland, provided they meet certain criteria such as possessing a motor with a maximum power not exceeding 250 watts and cutting out at 15.5 mph, e-bikes can be exempted from classification as a powered transporter and instead be treated as an Electronically Power Assisted Cycle (“EPAC”) – an exemption that allows them to be ridden legally wherever a ‘normal’ bicycle can.
E-bikes’ EPAC exemption may be one reason behind their growing popularity in the UK. A major car and sports equipment retailer has predicted a 30% increase in e-bike sales over the coming year alone.
And with e-scooters offering similar advantages to consumers in terms of providing a convenient, easily-storable and lightweight powered transport solution, it stands to reason that new legislation adequately addressing their legal use could help support their growth too.
Given their potential to support future greener mobility solutions, a similar exemption for e-scooters from their current classification seems likely at some point in the future.
But what a change to the law when it comes to e-scooters will look like is very much still to be determined. There several factors – and options - that the government will need to consider on the road ahead.
In the EU, where e-scooters are a popular option in many member states, changes have already been set forth to support their legal use. An amendment to remove them from the EC Motor Directive’s scope has recently been tabled. If successful, this could greatly expand their potential use.
How changes to EU law might apply in the UK is a question affected by our impending departure from the Bloc. It remains to be seen how closely UK law will remain aligned to EU legislation, but alignment with an amended motor directive could be one option for delivering change to our current system.
On the other hand, it may be decided that new legislation should be fully homegrown. Indeed, UK-based transport schemes featuring micro-mobility solutions, including e-scooters, have been formally proposed by local authorities to the Department for Trasport for a share of its £70m Future Mobility Zone funding.
Post-Brexit, and in the absence of compulsory alignment with new EU laws, proposals such as these could give the DfT an ideal opportunity to extend exemptions to e-scooters and other powered transporters.
Whatever shape new proposals take, due consideration will need to be given to concerns such as safety and the potential for injury, which in turn will involve discussions around factors such as insurance requirements.
As e-bikes have their own rules and are not classified in the UK as a powered transporter, insurance is not mandatory.
Insurance requirements for cyclists – pedal or electric – have been a matter of debate, but issues such as enforcement, registration, and even mandatory insurance’s potential to hamper government efforts to improve people’s health and drive environmental benefits mean the position is unlikely to change.
Although the potential environmental benefit of e-scooters is clear, their lack of perceived health benefits when compared to cycling – even on an e-bike – could make any future insurance considerations tricky.
And while commercial operators of e-scooter schemes may have insurance against third party losses or damage, it is doubtful that most individuals would take out a similar policy.
Wheeling out proposals
As a mode of alternative transport, e-scooters are unlikely to be a just a fad – their popularity abroad, and here in the UK, is set to only grow in the years to come.
With stringent environmental targets to meet, the government cannot afford to discount options that could help it make progress. When it comes to the law around e-scooters, and other powered transporters, something will need to give.
Amendments or exemptions from current law will certainly require careful consideration. But with time ticking, and the technology already available, we look forward to seeing the wheels of change start to turn.