The rapid proliferation of so-called personal mobility vehicles, probably a key element of sustainable mobility in the future, has exposed significant legal loopholes and led to users, pedestrians and other drivers expressing many doubts about how they should circulate, as indicated in a new report produced by Fundación MAPFRE. Coinciding with the first fatalities associated with these vehicles, Spain is already working on some general rules and guidelines.

Reality sometimes overtakes us and urgent legislation proves necessary. The sudden invasion of personal mobility vehicles (PMV) in our cities has led to the institutions having to deal with the social debate, with barely time for reflection. Everything has accelerated as a result of the booming activity of the companies hiring out electric scooters, which have flooded our streets over the past few months.

What was merely incidental a little over a year ago is today an urban phenomenon with important consequences for the future of our cities. This is confirmed in the report New personal mobility systems in the city and their road safety-related problems, produced by Fundación MAPFRE, in collaboration with the Spanish Highway Association. Firstly, many people have discovered this new, unstoppable form of mobility: according to the AUVMP (Personal Mobility Vehicle Users Association), there are already over 20,000 vehicles of this type being used around Spain. And secondly, an overwhelming majority of pedestrians and drivers (90 percent) feel that laws need to be drafted to regulate their use.

Potentially dangerous

This new form of mobility has also brought with it some tragic consequences. Regrettably, the first fatalities were reported in 2018. According to the Fundación MAPFRE report, five people were killed in Spain in accidents involving PMVs. The causes ranged from the PMV user losing control and being knocked down by another vehicle, to pedestrians being struck or knocked down, falls, etc. These deaths, together with the 273 incidents registered in the first 11 months of 2018 and confirmed by the public prosecutor responsible for road safety, corroborate a sharp increase in the accident rate for PMVs. “Taking Valencia as an example, in the year 2016 there were no incidents with this kind of vehicle; in 2017 there were five; and in 2018, as far as we know, there were 38 incidents,” explains Jesús Monclús, Fundación MAPFRE’s Accident Prevention and Road Safety manager.

Until November 2016, this kind of vehicle was not even codified in any state regulation. It was then that the DGT (Spanish traffic authority) published Instruction 16/V-124, which defines them as “vehicles capable of assisting people to move around and whose construction may exceed the characteristics of traditional cycles and be fitted with an electric motor.” However, the DGT insisted that they cannot be put on an equal footing with pedestrians, nor classified as motor vehicles.

Nonetheless, this Instruction granted almost total freedom to the municipalities as regards regulating the circulation limitations in each locality, stating that no administrative authorization was needed to ride them, nor was it obligatory to take out any insurance policy for personal use. That Instruction also classified the PMVs in five groups, according to their weight, maximum speed, and the height of hazardous angular elements which could cause injury in the event of a collision.

PMVs are an ideal solution for relatively short urban trips, or as a complement to other public or private means of transport. But not everything is that positive

Great advantages, much confusion

PMV is an “umbrella term” covering vehicles with different weights, dimensions and speeds: Segways, electric unicycles (airwheels), hoverboards, electric scooters, electric skateboards, etc. However, they all share a series of benefits that have led to them swamping our cities, especially in the case of self-balancing machines (such as hoverboards or Segways) and, above all, electric scooters: they are fast, lightweight, easy to use and transport, have sufficient autonomy for urban trips, avoid traffic jams, are economical to use and do not pollute. An ideal solution for relatively short urban trips, or as a complement to other public or private means of transport.

But not everything is that positive. PMVs have to share space in cities with both pedestrians and other vehicles which are heavier, larger and faster than them. Just like, for example, bicycles; however, in the case of these “new” vehicles, neither their users nor the rest of us are clear about such basic questions as where they should circulate or at what speed. This widespread perplexity is well reflected in the results of the survey conducted for the Fundación MAPFRE report among over 500 drivers, pedestrians and PMV users. According to this poll, 49 percent of PMV users do not know whether any regulation exists governing the proper use of these vehicles. Moreover, 40 percent of those who use this means of transport believe they can circulate wherever they want.

The city councils decide

One of the explanations for all this confusion is obvious: there is no one overriding regulation. General guidelines leave so many loose ends that there are vast differences between various local regulations. For example, some localities have stipulated 16 years as the minimum age for riding a PMV, while others do not even regulate this aspect. In some places wearing a helmet is compulsory if you ride an electric scooter, while others only make it obligatory for the under-16s. Likewise for other kinds of equipment such as reflective elements, lights or bells, with their obligatory nature once again being left to the local authorities to decide.

Given all of the above, the greatest confusion stems from the difficulty for users to identify where exactly they can circulate on their PMVs. And this is not surprising, since the municipal ordinances – where they exist (many municipalities are still drafting them) – are very recent, often vague and barely publicized. Once again, disparity of criteria is the norm. The legal maze PMV users face is not unique to Spain. Worldwide, the legal framework is equally disparate, as reflected also in the Fundación MAPFRE report. Legislation that is nonexistent (France), restrictive (United Kingdom or Hong Kong) or very lenient (in the United States, where most state and local regulations allow PMVs to circulate on sidewalks) also highlights, on a global scale, how swiftly this new urban mobility has taken hold.

The DGT picks up the gauntlet

The good news is that the panorama may become clearer in the medium term. In Spain the DGT is already working on a Royal Decree that will lay down the general guidelines for regulating this kind of vehicle, as confirmed by Jorge Ordás, assistant general manager of Mobility Management and Technology at the DGT: “This Royal Decree will be integrated into the General Vehicle Regulations and include a more precise definition of the PMV as “electrically propelled vehicles”. This means that the mere fact of being considered vehicles warrants the application of the provisions of the General Driving Regulations with respect to issues such as driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, wearing headphones or using cell phones. In addition, they will not be able to circulate on the sidewalk.” Moreover, this Royal Decree, which the Government hopes to approve by June 2019, will limit the speed of PMVs to a maximum of 25km/h, “as stipulated in the draft text of the European technical standard on which we are working,” Ordás clarifies. Nor may they circulate on streets where the maximum speed exceeds 30 km/h.

While the regulations are being adapted to the new forms of mobility, the cities are already debating how to reinvent themselves to absorb all these new vehicles. “There shouldn’t be any fighting or competition between vehicles. Speed limits and the spaces reserved for each of them need to be regulated. The idea is that a person may use different types of transport for one journey; but, to do so, the city must adapt itself to ensure there are places that facilitate such multimodality,” suggests the expert Rafael Hernández López, director of the Master’s degree course in Urban Mobility at the Camilo José Cela University (Madrid).

A PMV user? Travel safely!

While the long-awaited state regulation laying down certain obligations for users of Personal Mobility Vehicles is yet to arrive, common sense is our best weapon when it comes to using them safely. “These vehicles should not circulate on the sidewalks, as these are for pedestrians. Nor should they travel on the roads, where there are heavy vehicles traveling at 80 km/h, nor on normal city streets limited to 50 km/h where there are buses and vans. We are thus left with traffic-calmed streets limited to 30 km/h or lower, and those bicycle designated areas such as bike lanes,” clarifies Jesús Monclús, Accident Prevention and Road Safety manager at Fundación MAPFRE. As well as limiting ourselves to circulating in “safe” areas, Monclús stresses the need to adopt other measures to prevent possible incidents or, at least, minimize their consequences: “Firstly, we must ensure we are more easily seen by wearing high-visibility or reflective elements or clothing at night. We should also wear a helmet to protect our head, which is the most important and most vulnerable part of our body. And we must know the regulations in our municipality and avoid trying to compete for the same space with other heavier vehicles.”