The Research and Guidelines Steering Group has prepared two reviews of international literature on mobility scooters: a 2013 review of international approaches to the classification and regulation of mobility scooters; and a 2015 review of recent UK and Australian studies on health and safety issues affecting the devices and their users.
New Zealand is facing broadly similar demographic trends to those faced by Australia, North America and Europe. The population is aging and a large segment of the current population is moving towards being over 65. As a broad generalisation, mobility-related disability affects about one third of persons within the over 65 age group. Nevertheless, high personal mobility and personal independence are seen as being particularly important for this age group.
Personal mobility and personal independence are also seen as being particularly important for younger persons with injuries or disabilities that affect their mobility. Obesity-related mobility impairment is also an increasing issue. At the same time there is also a trend away from private car ownership, with increasing interest in alternative personal mobility solutions. For all of these reasons, there has been increasing interest in motorised personal mobility devices.
Mobility Scooters are becoming an increasingly common sight on many suburban streets, especially in provincial centres. Improved designs and greater acceptance, or a decrease in a perception of mobility scooters as being for only the physically impaired, have seen these devices become an increasingly popular personal mobility choice.
Although there is a wide variation in regulatory approaches to motorised mobility devices in different jurisdictions, increasing recognition has been given to the need to balance the benefits to the elderly and disabled from improved mobility against the need to ensure that these groups, whether as mobility device users or as pedestrians, are not put at greater risk.
Significant safety issues can attach to mobility scooters used by elderly or disabled operators. These devices tend to be substantially heavier and faster than most pedestrians, and can be beyond the fitness or competence of some elderly or disabled operators to control effectively. Operators of mobility scooters appear to be at significantly greater risk of being in an accident, and of being seriously or fatally injured in accidents, than other groups using the road corridor.
There is also evidence to suggest that serious health concerns exist around increased use of mobility devices. Younger persons and those who have no disability are increasingly using mobility scooters for personal transport. Their adoption by individuals who could otherwise walk is likely to produce substantial personal and public health costs.
Active personal transport modes, such as walking and cycling, have proven benefits at a societal and economic level. Greater investment in active transport choices has been supported by health professionals at a national level. A mobility scooter is an alternative sedentary transport mode and potentially more pernicious, because it allows the entire journey to be completed without taking a single step in many instances.
Mobility scooters have been seen to be comparable to cyclists and pedestrians in safety needs and functionality requirements: low-speed roads, cycle paths and footpaths. Provision of safe travel options that allow easy access to services and amenities is seen as a vital factor in maintaining mobility in the elderly and the disabled. This mobility remains dependent on access to private transport. The need, therefore, is for safer users, safer vehicles, safer infrastructure and innovative alternative personal transport options.
There is a need to balance avoiding creating a barrier to greater independence of the elderly and disabled against putting them and the public at greater risk. Mobility scooter users can have reduced mobility or a physical disability almost by definition. Vision, hearing, perception, reflexes, reaction time, balance, posture, strength, co-ordination, endurance, cognition, lucidity, memory and judgement can all be potentially impaired in scooter users.
Mobility scooter users without prior driving experience can lack experience in planning a journey and the stages needed to reach an objective, reading traffic, making spatial judgements, assessing risk and hazards, using peripheral vision and reacting appropriately to hazards. Alcohol use and medications preventing operation of machinery have also been identified as issues for mobility scooter users.
Despite the claims of some advertisers that tend to portray all mobility scooters in external settings, often on slopes, the ability of mobility scooters to safely negotiate changes in gradient and surface level can be quite limited. This limitation is particularly relevant to the design of infrastructure used by mobility scooters, including temporary footpaths and detours around worksites.
Crossfall gradients and vehicle access crossings on paths are a significant issue for mobility scooter users. Mobility scooters are highly responsive to changes in surface texture or gradient, and a user without the strength, alertness or reactions to avoid or respond to a sudden change can easily lose control. A crossfall of 1:50 is ideal.
For mobility scooters to safely pass each other without risk of collision and without risk of tipping off a path or colliding with a wall or stationary object requires a path width of 2.0 m. A 2010 UK study found that the turning circle of a 1500x695mm mobility scooter is 4.35 m, and a 90 degree turn needs 2.2 m.
The time taken for a mobility scooter user to look both ways and commence crossing a road can be up to 8 seconds and for a mobility scooter to cross a 7 m road can be up to 12.7 seconds. A mobility scooter can, therefore, be up to 46 percent slower crossing a road than a pedestrian.
Treatment of mobility scooters as pedestrians raises philosophical and potentially legal issues of consistency of treatment if any barrier to use is considered that would not apply equally to a person walking, rather than using a mobility device.
Classification of essentially similar devices as being pedestrian, bicycle or motor vehicle depending on the speed environment in which they operate is confusing and potentially contributing to higher accident rates amongst mobility device users, as devices classed as pedestrian and not equipped with suitable safety and security equipment are nevertheless being taken onto roads. The weight of the international literature tends towards classification of mobility scooters and similar personal mobility devices as a special class of motor vehicle.