EXPOSED: High street cowboys turning e-scooters into 40mph death traps

EXPOSED: High street cowboys are turning e-scooters into 40mph death traps by ‘chipping’ new machines and almost trebling their top speed – without warning about the dangers

  • They are sold as convenient and eco-friendly – but e-scooters can be dangerous
  • Especially as high street cowboys will soup them up for cheap, raising top speed
  • Existing limits on scooters sold in the UK mean nothing if ‘chipping’ is so easy
  • Mail on Sunday investigation shows how easy it is to transform a ‘safe’ scooter

They are sold as a convenient, eco-friendly and very modern way to negotiate congested towns and cities. 

There are up to a million e-scooters on British streets – even though, in the vast majority of cases, it is actually illegal to ride them on public roads or pavements.

But that’s a mere technicality to a growing army of enthusiasts. 

They conjure up a futuristic world in which we trundle between coffee shops at speeds so sedate that riders and pedestrians alike are safe from harm.

E-scooters conjure up a futuristic world – but high street cowboys are making them unsafe

Machines taking part in an official nationwide trial of e-scooters for rent are restricted to 15.5mph, for example. 

There is talk of new laws limiting private e-scooters to 12.5mph.

Yet the reality is quite different – and such limits meaningless.

For an investigation by The Mail on Sunday has established that a fast-emerging back-room industry is already transforming ‘safe’, green machines into what are effectively unlicensed motorbikes capable of whatever speed the riders choose to pay for.

Silent, unregistered, often capable of 30mph or more, they’re behind a rising tide of serious injuries, many of them life-changing – yet the growing numbers of e-scooters are seemingly ignored by the police.

No wonder they’re increasingly the vehicle of choice for criminal gangs.

Workers at the E-Scooters Clinic at Kings Cross, London were happy to soup mine up to 40mph

A few of the brightly coloured e-scooters that you see are entirely legal. 

These are part of a Government trial in English towns and cities due to end in November. 

The riders taking part need a driving licence. They must register and go through basic safety training.

But most of the e-scooters on the roads should not be there at all. Little more than toys, they are only legal on private land with the permission of the owner.

The e-scooter industry hopes that this will soon change and that the army of private machines will be legalised. 

Anyone expecting them to obey tight new speed restrictions, however, should think again.

It took only a matter of minutes to find a mechanic in London willing to hack, or ‘chip’, my sedate new e-scooter and almost treble its top speed. 

I chose a shop called the E-Scooter Clinic, near King’s Cross, as I’d been assured it was accommodating – and it was. 

But there were plenty more to choose from. I could even have done it from the comfort of my home by following a YouTube tutorial.

My machine, a £480 Chinese-made Xiaomi Pro2 scooter, was restricted to a sensible 15.5mph by the manufacturer.

That’s not slow, but it’s what experts judge to be near the upper safety limit for a device with such small wheels and limited stability.

When I went under cover to the E-Scooter Clinic, however, they seemed to take a different view. The mechanic’s opening words were: ‘We can go as fast as you want.’

I went down to the basement workshop and watched as the mechanic replaced the existing battery with a bigger, higher-voltage one, capable of more power. 

Then they reset the e-scooter’s internal software, taking it up to a bone-rattling 40mph – all for £300. I was told that they could get it up to a terrifying 60mph for £900, but I politely declined the offer. 

The whole thing took about two hours, but at no point was I warned about the likely dangers.

And the only reference to the legal position was on the E-Scooter Clinic website, which said that their machines could not be used on the road and warned, ‘It is each customer’s sole responsibility’ to obey the law.

Would I be safe at 40mph? The shop staff helpfully suggested I avoid the pavement, where injuries are more likely. 

In the year ending June 2021 there were 882 e-scooter accidents across Britain (file image)

The E-Scooter Clinic said the most common ‘repair’ they see is people coming in to get their scooters to go faster. That and punctures.

One of their servicing leaflets seemed to sum it up in a section advertising upgrades: ‘Do you feel that 15mph is not enough? Do you want to feel the wind in your hair? Or maybe you want to unlock the full capacity of your battery? Then it is the right upgrade for you.’

There’s nothing illegal about souping-up an e-scooter, and there was nothing obviously shady about the E-Scooter Clinic.

Cakes and coffee were on sale, alongside a colourful range of e-scooters, some costing £2,000.

The staff didn’t bat an eyelid when a customer came in requesting an e-scooter fast enough to ‘get away from somewhere, quickly’.

He explained he was ‘looking for the fear factor’ and an upgrade – additional speed – of ‘at least 30mph’. 

His first e-scooter had been seized by the police, he said, but he has not been stopped in the nine months since.

‘I don’t think I’ll get another one seized,’ he continued. ‘There’s too many people out there on their scooters, they can’t stop us.’

So long as they stay upright, perhaps. Inherently unstable because of their small wheels, e-scooters can be thrown off balance very easily.

TV presenter Emily Hartridge, 35, was the first person in Britain to be killed in an e-scooter accident when an under-inflated tyre caused her to lose control in 2019, throwing her into the path of a lorry.

Academics from Imperial College London found that three-quarters of riders fell to the ground if their scooter hit a pothole between 2.5in-3.5in deep (6cm-9cm), and that the force of the fall would be enough to cause a skull fracture.

Data from the Metropolitan Police shows that e-scooters were involved in 258 collisions in London in the first six months of 2021 – more than one a day – compared with just nine collisions in the whole of 2018. 

There were 11 UK deaths involving e-scooters in 2021, and 900 casualties.

When I tried out my own souped-up e-scooter – on private land – it was easy to see why.

The acceleration is unnerving. I found myself shooting off, wobbling a little, and was at 20mph in no time at all. 

I could feel every nick and crack in the scuffed tarmac, so can only imagine the effect of a real hole.

By the time I reached 35mph, the whole machine was shaking and I was shaking too. It was clear that the slightest bump could have sent me flying. 

Had I dared to reach top speed, I would certainly have fallen off. Taking it on the public road would have been insane.

PACTS – the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety – is particularly concerned about the spread of e-scooters and believes it should be made an offence to alter them.

‘The people doing this are worse than cowboys,’ spokesman David Davies told The Mail on Sunday. ‘They are highly, highly irresponsible.’

Presenter Emily Hartridge, 35, is thought to be the first person killed on an e-scooter in Britain

Almost half a million e-scooters were imported into Britain in the 12 months up to November. They are sold by a range of household names.

Yet some completely fail to mention that private e-scooters are banned from public roads.

Quite the opposite. Harrods advertises e-scooters for those going about their ‘daily commute to the office or an afternoon of running errands’, for example. 

Blacks describes a scooter as ‘ideal for built-up city exploration’.

At Pure Electric in Holborn, where I bought my own machine, the sales assistant omitted to mention that it would be illegal to ride it on the road outside, let alone the pavement.

True, he recommended that I wear a helmet, but he accompanied the advice with an exaggerated eye roll.

The Halfords website is a rare exception in stating the legal position clearly and prominently.

It’s little wonder that, along with e-bikes, e-scooters are said to be the new vehicle of choice for drug-dealing street gangs.

One police force – Avon and Somerset – reported more than 1,200 e-scooter crimes last year.

In May 2020, an e-scooter was used in Enfield, North London, as the getaway vehicle in a shooting.

E-scooters are also fuelling rural crime, allowing thieves to enter farmyards and other premises in silence.

As for the environmental benefits, it’s not clear that e-scooters are as green as is claimed.

According to the Lime rental brand, for example, they ‘reduce dependence on personal automobiles for short distance transportation and leave future generations with a cleaner, healthier planet’.

Not all e-scooter rides replace car journeys, however.

Some riders are avoiding public transport. Others would normally walk or ride a bicycle, a point made by researchers from North Carolina State University, who calculated total emissions over the lifetime of an e-scooter, taking manufacture, delivery and disposal into account.

They concluded that e-scooters generally produce more greenhouse-gas emissions per passenger mile than a well-used bus, an electric moped, an electric bicycle, a bicycle or a pedestrian, of course. 

As one of the authors put it: ‘two-thirds of the time, e-scooter riders generate more greenhouse-gas emissions than the alternative. And those increased emissions were greater than the gains from the car rides not taken.’

Chris Uff, consultant neurosurgeon and head of neurotrauma at the Royal London Hospital, says that 20 people a week come to his major trauma unit as a result of e-scooter accidents.

‘Most of the more severe casualties we’ve seen had three things in common: they were not wearing a helmet, were drunk or high on drugs and had been going way too fast – and by that, I mean more than 15mph,’ he said.

‘These souped-up e-scooters are effectively motorbikes. The injuries we’re seeing are consistent with those who have crashed motorbikes.’

Some of the injuries, in fact, are more severe as e-scooter riders are less likely to wear protective equipment. 

Mr Uff would like to see e-scooters regulated in the same way as motorcycles.

‘Needless to say, e-scooters are only adding to the pressure on our hospitals,’ he continued. 

‘They are unnecessarily dangerous. I would never ride one, and, ideally, I’d like to see them completely taken off the roads. The fact there hasn’t been a major crackdown on this is outrageous.’

When approached for comment a spokesman for the E-Scooter Clinic said: ‘The safety of our customers is our top priority.’

Source: Read Full Article