Mobility Scooters – To Regulate is not to Restrict

I knew when I shared the news article with the No Permit No Park crowd it would stir them up. I did it because I wanted to see what solutions people suggested to the issues of safety. Not much was offered other than people need to watch where they’re walking. Which I totally agree with, but there’s a whole lot more to community safety than just personal responsibility.

The issue was raised by a NSW Senator when his wife was bowled over by a large mobility scooter as she stepped out of a shop doorway. She was injured, he was angry and rightly so. The person who hit the woman was travelling far too close to the doorways to be safe. However this wasn’t what the Senator seemed to have issue with. It was the speed. At most on a flat surface it would have been below 12kms per hour depending on the model of the scooter, it’s age and the weight of the person riding on it. The Senator posed the argument that 12kms per hour is too fast and they need to be restricted. He’s right. If we’re talking about scooters being in crowds of pedestrians. What the Senator doesn’t understand is that mobility scooters are designed with adjustable speeds for a number of reasons and should the Senator ever find himself in the situation where he does have a mobility impairment and decides to acquire himself the independence of a mobility scooter then I’m certain he will appreciate this design feature. Until he tries it though he can’t speak for us.

Mobility aides whether powered or not need to meet Australian Standards to be saleable in Australia. The regulation on use however varies from state to state and this is where the biggest problems lie.

Registered Mobility Scooter
Registered Mobility Scooter

In Queensland for example, just like getting a disability parking permit, to have your powered mobility device registered for outdoor use in public areas, you need proof of mobility impairment from your treating physician. If you have a genuine need then you have no issue with this. You only need it once only if your disability is permanent. To legally use a powered mobility device on footpaths or roads in Qld it must be registered. Why? Well, just as disability accessible parking and disability accessible toilets are inviting to people because they’re “convenient”, it was found that mobility scooters in particular were a convenient way to get around without needing a licence to drive. This seemed to be especially appealing to certain members of society who had issues with retaining a driver’s licence, in particular for drink driving. After all how many mobility scooter riders do you ever see pulled over for an RBT? To keep the numbers regulated to the percentage of population with real mobility disabilities it was decided to regulate the use of these devices. Oh, did I mention registration is free? And comes with free CTP insurance?

That’s not to say that the regulation is optimal. As well as mobility scooters, Queensland law also requires powered wheelchairs to be registered for use outdoors also. I’ve had conversations with a number of users over the years and while I personally thought since registration is free and comes with free CTP why the hell would you not register it? However after comparing the differences between the two I completely understand their reasons for not complying with the registration requirement of their powered wheelchair and I totally support them. When you compare mobility scooters and powered wheelchairs there is a significant difference between the two. One is to make life easier and the other is to make life possible. If you ride a mobility scooter but do not use a wheelchair, chances are you can still walk enough to open a door or take yourself to the non accessible toilet and for that you should consider yourself pretty damn well blessed and you should absolutely not group wheelchair users into the same category.

Mobility Scooters are designed generally for outdoor use and have handle bars on a pillar for steering. Powered wheelchairs are designed for both indoor and outdoor use and are steered with one hand using a joystick. Power chairs are very manoeuvrable and easy to use indoors. Mobility scooters are often faced with difficulty manoeuvring in small areas. While modern designs of mobility scooters see them getting smaller and more convenient to use indoors they’re still not the option for those who need continual use of a wheeled device both inside and out. They’re in lesser numbers on our footpaths and even lesser seen on the road, the method of control is significantly different to that of a mobility scooter and just for that reason alone, shouldn’t be included in the requirement to register.

A shop front showing different styles of mobility scooters
A shop front showing different styles of mobility scooters

Mobility scooters on the other hand need regulation and I doubt it will be long before we see other states following Queensland’s lead.

On the subject of restriction though, well, how much more restricted do you want them to be?

There are size restrictions for using them on public transport. This is why I chose a mobility scooter that is smaller than the size of an average wheelchair. Many shopping centres and other indoor public environments also restrict sizes to ensure the comfort of all patrons. I know when I’m walking (shuffling) around, being surrounded by groups of large mobility scooters makes walking around safely somewhat difficult. I avoid walking around in car parks, so I’m not about to rush into an enclosed space with a bunch of kamikaze scooter riders.

Restricting use to driver’s licence holders though is just outrageously ridiculous. Being unfit to drive because my legs don’t work well enough and my upper limb use is restricted does not mean I am incapable of managing a mobility scooter. Two levers, back and forth make it pretty simple. If you can walk or cycle around the neighbourhood then you can manage a mobility scooter. When you apply for registration of your scooter one of the requirements are that your doctor needs to be of the belief that you’re capable of controlling one. The downside to this is that there is no updating of this once you’ve registered like there is with your licence once your doctor has diagnosed you with any illness that may affect your ability to drive (if they’re a decent doctor). Once you’re registered you’re registered. You just keep renewing it. Although I’d like to believe that if I reach the stage when I don’t have the capacity to realise I’m no longer safe on a scooter my family will be the first to act on it.

Speed restrictions are another question. Should the speed be restricted further than it is already. While most are limited in Australia to a brisk stroll to a jog, or 8 to 10kph some are sold that go up to 12kph. The design of mobility scooters is different do that of a powered wheelchair in that a scooter will pick up speed in excess of what it is powered to do if going down hill (isn’t gravity amazing!), while powered chairs (for the most) do not. The average walking speed is around 5kph. All motorised mobility devices have adjustable speed controls however very few have a monitor that allows you to see how fast you are going. While my CTM scooter is restricted to 8kph I’ve used my mobile phone GPS to detect the speed and hit just over 9kms going downhill. I know right! Speed demon I am. Point is I couldn’t tell how fast I was going. Luckily for me (and the people around me) I’m able to judge what is a safe speed around other people. Although I am known to become frustrated in shopping centres and speed on around people who shop in herds and use up the entire corridor.

The problem with speed restriction on these devices is that the terrain we travel on isn’t always forgiving and the motors being electric have no regulator to adapt for more power required like gears or a turbo booster on motor vehicles. Steep hills, ramps and soft ground such as grass or dirt (there isn’t always a footpath) all affect the optimum power of the device.

There’s no accounting for weight and I am sure that there has to be a difference even if small, in the power used when a person of 110kgs is travelling on the same device as someone of 50kgs. Nonetheless that’s not the main reason these devices are designed with enough power to reach these speeds. Crossing roads is one of our biggest challenges. I am eternally grateful to those who stop on the highway off ramp at North Lakes when I’m trying to cross because cars rarely see me and they just as rarely do the 40km speed limit on that section having just left a 100km stretch of road. When crossing the road is like playing a game of Frogger (you Sega kids from the 80’s will remember that one) you want to know you have a little bit of power behind you.

A mobility scooter is lying on it's side under the front bumper of a car after being in a collision.
A mobility scooter is lying on it’s side under the front bumper of a car after being in a collision.

There’s nothing to be gained by the disability community by restricting our inclusion and access any further than it already is. Even though the non disabled might not care all that much about it now, well, there’s every chance they could end up joining us one day. Then they may regret those restrictions they put on their future lives.

Regulation however needs to be carefully managed so as not to over regulate something that doesn’t need to be, just creating more red tape and paperwork and of course, cost to the government. The most important thing about designing regulation is that it should be based on input and feedback from those who will be regulated; the disability community. It doesn’t need to be a 258 page document. Just basic commonsense and benefit for those under the regulation.

  • Free CTP with the Free registration is a great upside for mobility scooter users but as the incidences for powered wheelchairs are 1 to 100 for mobility scooters the inclusion of them in compulsory registration is just not feasible.
  • If speeds are going to be limited then all devices should be fitted with a speedometer. This needs to be included in the Australian Standards so that the devices aren’t sold without them or at least an after market accessory is available.
  • Better access to Occupational Therapists for those seeking to acquire the use of a powered mobility device, for professional advice not just sales advice.
  • Better access to learning support for those new to the device. It’s great to get a flyer with information but practical demonstration, tricks and tips from those with experience makes learning far easier and gives the user confidence.
  • Most of all… better damn footpaths. If paths were clear, wide and undamaged then perhaps riders wouldn’t be forced to ride so close to doorways.

If you think mobility scooter riders are a danger you’ve clearly never been to a Boxing Day Sale.

A row of mobility scooter riders one riding behind the other
A row of mobility scooter riders one riding behind the other

Epilogue:
Australian Road Rules
The Australian Road Rules state that a person using a mobility scooter is classed as a pedestrian if the maximum speed on level ground cannot exceed 10 km/h. As such the rider:
must observe the same road rules that apply to pedestrians
must not obstruct the path of any driver or other road user
must not travel along a road if there is a footpath or nature strip adjacent to the road, unless it is impracticable to travel on the footpath or nature strip
if travelling along a road must:
– keep as far to the side of the road as possible
– travel facing the approaching traffic unless it is not practicable to do so
can use shared paths, off-road bike paths and shopping malls
does not need to have a driver’s licence.

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