Innovation depends on our ability to try new things – like e-scooters

Andy Mayer

May 28, 2021

If, like me you have never sought the thrill of 15.5mph of wind in your hair standing on a self-propelled skateboard with handrails, you may fail to understand the fuss about rows over electric scooters and their current lack of legal recognition in the UK. They are after all, like any form of motorised transport, mildly dangerous and do not mix well with pedestrians plodding along the pavement at less than a quarter of the speed.

But this is to miss the point. Innovation depends on our ability to try new things. See how they work. See how they don’t work. Break them. Fix them. Make them better, then worry about the rules governing how they should be used.

Try to imagine, for example, writing the rules for a game of chess, having never carved a piece, let alone tried to play the game. That is the absurdity of trying to regulate something that you currently don’t permit to operate.  Particularly when the thing in question is likely no more dangerous than the average bicycle, and carries enough tech on board to substantially safer. Yet that is where we are with E-Scooters.

The Government to be fair to them are trying to fix the problem. They want to run trials. They ran a huge consultation on this in 2020, and concluded they should run even more of them. Prod-nosed safety-ocrats from local authorities and Police Chiefs still trying to work out which of a myriad of pointless laws to enforce for another month of sort-of-lockdown are the principle problem children. Some have called for trials to be blocked until new laws can be put in place, and some just don’t like the idea of their officers chasing toerags on micro-machines without looking very silly.

But this is bonkers. I’ve written previously about the precautionary principle and how it can be abused in fields wider than the environmental cases where it is most commonly applied. It gets abused when rather than helping people manage unknown risks by thinking about them and putting in place mitigation measures (like running trials), it instead becomes a zero harm prescription for doing nothing. In turn destroying any prospect of testing those risks and making any precautionary response more robust and useful. This is great case of that abuse.

E-scooters, silly or sensible, environmentally useful or just a fun toy, are an innovation, the impact of which to benefit our lives is entirely uncertain. Those benefits, or otherwise, cannot be centrally planned. Only tested in the market place, where providers will find either glory or the fate of the Sinclair C5 (the rather bizarre looking one-person battery electric velomobile) awaiting their hubris. We just don’t know.

What we do know is that sitting around waiting for perfect legislation that obviates all risk of some numpty treating his e-bike like a Harley in a pedestrianised zone outside an old-people’s home and next to a glass window workshop will not help. So just run the trials already and let the people choose.


  • Andy Mayer

    Andy Mayer is Chief Operating Officer and environment, energy and infrastructure analyst at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Written by Andy Mayer

Andy Mayer is Chief Operating Officer and environment, energy and infrastructure analyst at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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