Are accidents bound to happen?

After statistics released by the Department for Transport revealed a rise in the number of accidents involving mobility scooters, questions regarding safety are being asked inside and outside the industry. Is enough being done to safeguard users and the public and whose responsibility is it to ensure users are operating the vehicles safely?

According to figures released by the Department of Transport, there were 260 reported accidents involving mobility scooters in 2016, equating to a 17% increase on the previous year and standing in stark contrast to the 84 reported in 2012. Worryingly, the number of fatalities in 2016 also saw a sharp increase, rising by 75% on the eight fatalities reported the previous year.

The figures reveal a concerning rising number of accidents annually involving mobility vehicles, leading to the media, charities, police forces, universities, the industry and even MPs to question what can be done to keep scooter users and the public safe.

Do more scooters equal more accidents?

The UK has been dubbed the mobility scooter capital of Europe, with more and more mobility scooters taking to roads and pavements each year. In 2017, it was estimated that there were between 300,000 to 350,000 people using mobility scooters, with the number expected to rise 10 percent per year.

The amount of people aged 65 and over in the UK is predicted to grow 23 percent by 2033 and as the age of the population in the United Kingdom continues to grow, so too will the number of residents turning to mobility scooters to maintain their independence and mobility.

Some argue that the increase in accidents is a natural consequence of more users and scooters being on the road, however, others are questioning the amount of training and assessment being provided.

A lack of legislation

One of the key issues surrounding accidents and mobility vehicles relates to the lack of legislation surrounding the sector.

Class 3 mobility scooters do have to be registered with the DVLA, however, users do not need to undergo any form of mandatory training or assessment before sharing the roads with other motor vehicles.

Users of the mobility devices are also expected to adhere to the Highway Code, yet are able to purchase and ride the scooters without having to show any form of proof that they understand the rules under which they are to operate the vehicles.

Paula Massey, Director of United Mobility Training has been campaigning for many years to introduce mandatory training for all users of mobility scooters.

She told THIIS: "There are currently over 350,000 mobility scooter users in Britain, driving on public roads and pavements with no legal requirement to undertake any form of training before use. This puts the user, other vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians at significant risk.”

Offering training, in association with TJ Services Wales Ltd, Paula aims to reduce the risk to the general public and to ensure that drivers of mobility scooters have the necessary skills and confidence to drive independently and safely.

Currently, there are is also no legal eyesight requirement to drive a mobility scooter and no legal requirement for insurance, whilst the means of purchasing a mobility scooter are becoming ever easier.

The legislation surrounding the use of class 3 mobility scooters on public roads has been criticised by other organisations, including charities, police forces and by some in the Government as being out-of-date, particularly as the users of such devices are often some of the most vulnerable in society.

In 2012, Alison Seabeck, Labour MP for Plymouth Devonport, called on the Government to implement some form of for compulsory training to be given to people who use mobility scooters and for stricter safety checks, whilst in 2016, Conservative MP Kevin Foster suggested that mobility scooters should carry number plates – suggestions rejected by the Government.

Relying on ethical retailers

With mobility scooter users not being required to undergo any form of formal assessment or training, often the responsibility to ensure that a person is suitable for a vehicle lies with a retailer at the point of sale. This means that the safety of an individual looking for a device is often left to the scruples of the individual selling it.

Crawley-based Wings Mobility noted the need for retailers to prioritise safety, stating: "We, at Wings Mobility, do not take our responsibilities of selling mobility equipment lightly and implore other bigger retailers to adopt the same attitude. Whilst we cannot influence every factor in the trend of increasing incidents we can, very surely, ensure that we sell these medical devices with the level of professionalism that is required.”

This is a view shared by Alastair Gibbs, Managing Director of TPG DisableAids, commenting: "As responsible retailers and as a BHTA member, we must make sure our customers are protected. I think we have a moral obligation to do the right thing.”

There are numerous retailers in the industry that have voluntarily opted to administer assessments and training to ensure the safety of customers. Retail members of the British Healthcare Trades Association (BHTA) for example developed a standard assessment form that all members are required to administer when selling a mobility vehicle, as well as ensuring all members record the training provided to customers.

The need for training

Across the industry, it is widely accepted that training is key for reducing the number of accidents involving mobility scooters.

Sarah Lepak, Director of Governance & Policy at the BHTA, stated: "Training is the simplest way to minimise the risk of incidents.”

Wings Mobility highlight however, that simply having a customer briefly drive around a store may not give them the necessary training needed to traverse the real world.

The company asked if anyone would ‘grant someone a driving licence on the strength of a driving test carried out on a test track within a warehouse? The reality is that pavements and roads in the UK present hazards and unexpected challenges that cannot be simulated in an artificial environment.’

This is a view supported by United Mobility Training’s Paula Massey, who told us: "Just riding around a store for a short while is not sufficient enough for users to gain an understanding of the power of the scooter or to learn the skills required to drive in public spaces with the associated hazards of pedestrians, obstacles and traffic.

"Additionally, market research has identified that many users complained of a lack of training and little knowledge of what to expect when using the scooters in public, with only a handful actually admitting they didn’t need training.”

United Mobility Training’s Paula Massey would like to run her programme nationwide

Wings Mobility detailed the training provided to their customers, which includes taking customers through the day-to-day situations they will find themselves in, including traversing slopes, drop kerbs to cross a road, rough ground and even occasionally taking customers in and out of supermarket aisles.

United Mobility Training also offers in-depth training relating to mobility vehicles, delivering a course over a three-hour session which takes users through the Highway Code, safety aspects, the importance of insurance and how to navigate real-world obstacles.

Retailers such as Ableworld, Lifestyle & Mobility and more have gone one step further, offering free mobility scooter proficiency lessons in partnership with care homes, police forces, charities and local communities to help ensure mobility scooter users have the skills and knowledge needed to keep themselves and others they share the roads and pavements with safe.

Additionally, charities and institutions including universities have also turned their attention to mobility scooter safety, with Nottingham Trent University presently creating an innovative mobility scooter training video which will be sent to Shopmobilities to help educate users.

Despite this, the number of accidents has still increased annually, questioning whether these ad-hoc activities have the necessary impact to curb the national trend of rising accidents and fatalities.

Can voluntary only go so far

Although various initiatives are being undertaken to help increase awareness regarding mobility scooters safety, the ability for customers to easily acquire vehicles unsuitable for them without being assessed or trained is easier than ever and is a key challenge for retailers determined to act ethically in the industry.

Karen Sheppard, Managing Director of People First Mobility, explained a situation where despite acting in the best interests of a customer, she was unable to change the outcome.

"At our shop, we assess all their needs, asking what conditions they may have, how do they intend to use it, how far do they intend to travel and more. Then we advise based on that information and make sure we sit them down and try out the products with them. We give advice how the product should be used and make sure they are comfortable using it.

"We had a customer come in who was adamant that she wanted a particular lightweight car boot scooter which had an 18-stone weight limit. She was heavier than that so we had to tell her she was unsuitable for that mobility scooter and refused to sell it to her.”

"A week later, we saw her ride past on the scooter. It may have been that she had gone online to purchase it or may have gone to a competitor but the concern is the scooter is not suitable for her and more importantly, is dangerous.”

With the rise of the internet and with no legislation relating to the user requirements of mobility scooters, there are more sellers for customers to turn to who do not operate with the same stringent assessment and safety processes as other retailers in the industry.

Moreover, these companies that do not have the costs of training and assessment are often able to offer the vehicles at lower prices to that of retailers that do provide these services.

Ian Gray, Director of Torbay Mobility, commented: "All mobility scooter purchasers should be given training. The biggest culprits for not training customers and therefore certainly contributing significantly to the increase in accidents are internet/online sellers.”

Whilst sellers providing training and assessment is vital, Darren Macey, Business Development Manager at Lifestyle & Mobility and the man behind the company’s proficiency training scheme with local councils, also explained that even though training may be available, users may not voluntarily participate.

"The problem is that although councils and us as retailers can offer it, it can’t be enforced,” he said.

"We are there if the council wants us to put on a council proficiency test day then we are happy to do that free of charge, however, we can’t force the users to take part.”

Is legislation needed?

A controversial topic is that of regulations and legislation concerning the requirements for individuals to ride mobility vehicles and the conditions under which they are sold.

A key argument in favour of regulation is its ability to level the playing field, with retailers that voluntarily undertake assessments and training being at a disadvantage to those that offer very little or none.

"Some form of regulation will need to be brought in I think because something is needed across the board that every seller is included under,” commented People First Mobility’s Karen Sheppard.

"We won’t sell a product to somebody if it is not right for them and it is something we all feel very strongly about because I don’t want that on my conscious. If people are looking for something that is cheap and unsuitable, then I don’t want to be a part of that, but the concern is how easy it is for customers to find that.”

Torbay Mobility’s Ian Gray suggested: "All mobility scooters should have an ‘MOT’ - type of test annually at a physical mobility retail store.”

Discussions surrounding driving licenses for mobility scooter users, compulsory testing and re-testing, mandatory training & assessment and more have all been raised, yet the magnitude of introducing and enforcing such wide sweeping regulations has raised doubts as to how realistic it would be to implement on a national scale.

Wings Mobility noted that whilst legislation is always an option, it is important to ‘remember that for any new laws to be effective they must be enforced. Who will meet the responsibility, or costs, for that?’

With such high potential costs for implementing and enforcing such legislation, there seems to be little appetite in the Government to introduce such laws, with previous calls from MPs gaining little traction in the House of Parliament.

One possible solution proposed was the introduction of compulsory insurance. At present, users do not need insurance for a mobility scooter or powered wheelchair, although it is recommended by the Government.

As a response to the rise in mobility scooter accidents, retailer TPG DisableAids made the decision to include insurance with every mobility vehicle the company sold, however, Alastair Gibbs suggested that compulsory insurance may not be the answer.

"The compulsory insurance route is so full of pitfalls and unfair to some of the customers that can’t afford it and yet have no choice but to be in a mobility device,” he explained.

With some insurance companies such as Fish Insurance offering customers of the retailers they work free insurance for a limited period, a concern is that compulsory insurance would push up prices for consumers, pricing out those who rely on these products to maintain their mobility and independence.

Can the trend fall?

Although legislation may be a way off, conversations over safety and regulations will remain a hot topic inside and outside the industry.

There are a large proportion of retailers operating ethically in the industry and providing the necessary assessment and training required when selling mobility vehicles, however, consumers are becoming ever more price-sensitive and can easily go to internet-sellers who are able to offer cheaper prices without the overheads associated with training and assessment costs.

If this trend continues, there is a worrying chance that the trend of accidents may not see a decline, especially with the number of mobility scooter users expected to continue increase significantly over the coming years.

This intensifies the need to raise awareness nationally about the importance of training, the dangers of operating a mobility vehicle without it and encouraging consumers to purchase from responsible retailers, as well as continuing to build on the activities currently done by various organisations, charities and business in the industry.

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