By Joe Fasbinder
So this is how the first recorded death of someone on an electric scooter in Santa Monica came to pass on March 15: Michael Ramljak was riding on his personal scooter – one of the kind with the sit-down seat – near the corner at Third Street and Hill Street, but fell over, into traffic lanes, where he was struck by a passing motorist fled from the scene. The suspect is still at large to the Santa Monica Police Department (SMPD).
To a lot of observers, the death was somehow inevitable. To anyone visiting the Promenade, or anywhere downtown, or on the Venice Boardwalk, it’s obvious that rental scooters and bicycles have taken over the road. Somebody was bound to get hit.
The local police have adapted to the new-found proliferation of two- and three-wheeled vehicles. They have to. For users, it’s an adaption everybody has to make. Thousands of people in motion dart in and out of traffic, foot and motorized, as they use downtown streets in Santa Monica.
“Scooters and bicycles are restricted to marked bicycle paths or traveling as close to the curb as possible,” said Santa Monica Police Department (SMPD) Police Lt. Candice Corarrubias.
There used to be a helmet law, but under state legislation that went into effect January 1, riders over the age of 18 are no longer required to wear a helmet.
That’s part of the problem. A lot of users of these motorized vehicles that can travel in excess of 18 miles an hour are nowhere near 18. The rules say that in addition to wearing a helmet, one has to adhere to other rules of the road: rules which are commonly ignored. A Bird spokesman told the Los Angeles Times it planned to initiate a requirement for users to show a driver’s license when they create an account to use their scooters. Kids still find their way around the rules, and you can hear them scream at each other as they careen in and out of traffic virtually everywhere.
How many bikes and scooters? Nobody seems to know. You can rent them on street corners, sidewalks, even in the City Hall building. At very minimum, you need a debit or a credit card to lease a bike or a scooter for any length of time up to a full day. Such daily fees can easily top 50 bucks. Even an hour or two can get costly. Hence, the proliferation of self-owned bikes and scooters. The streets are crowded with them, so the streets are generally pretty friendly to them and their riders. Ask Tristoin Akers, who staffs The Bike Center at Second Street and Colorado Avenue. “How many bikes do you have here?” He shakes his head and looks around. They are legion. “At least a hundred right now.” This was at midday on a Wednesday afternoon. Despite the large number of bikes available, there are still a lot of spaces indicating where electric- and human-powered vehicles have been put into service.
The Bike Center offers rentals, tours, parking (for bikes) repairs and retail sales of all manner of two and three-wheel human and electric powered vehicles. Helmets, maps and locks are free with rentals. The chaotic rental center is right next to a car park. It seems you can use wheels for about 99 percent of the time when visiting downtown, without having to touch pavement with your feet.
People get injured. The federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is looking into medical records in Austin, Texas, which has also recorded one scooter-related death and a plethora of injuries.
So, if it has wheels and moves, an attorney is involved. In this case it’s Catherine Lerer, who is suing Bird on behalf of Southern California clients who used dockless scooters with electric brakes. In her eyes, some of the brakes don’t seem to work too well when riders are coming down a hill.
Bird is one of four licensed contractors for electric scooters in Santa Monica. In addition, Lime, Lyft and Jump are part of the array. They’ve been doing business in Santa Monica since a pilot program began in 2018.
And like anything that fires public imagination, there have been protests. In March, Bird and Lime held a “Day Without Scooters” to protest being frozen out of an important city program. In December, the City filed a criminal complaint against Birdrides, Inc. for allegedly refusing to comply with City rules.
Bird is still present on the Boardwalk, on the Promenade and seemingly everywhere else in downtown Santa Monica.
It’s hard to tell who has the advantage, bike or scooter. Both are present in crazy numbers downtown.
And despite accidents like the one that took the life of Mr. Ramaljak, they’re going to stay.