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Review on Legal Status of Electric Scooter Needed to Resolve Anomaly

Deemed neither motorised nor non-motorised, the increasingly popular electric scooter is in a legislative non-man's land.

Photo: Scooting around the law: Street-smart, but not street-legal. (Xinhua News Agency)
Scooting around the law: Street-smart, but not street-legal.
Photo: Scooting around the law: Street-smart, but not street-legal. (Xinhua News Agency)
Scooting around the law: Street-smart, but not street-legal.

The anomalous legal standing of the humble electric scooter is causing growing concern in many of the mainland's larger cities. The device has grown hugely in popularity over recent years, but China's road traffic legislation has failed to keep pace with both new technology and changing consumer preferences, seeing the scooter's exact designation falling between two stools when it comes to legal liability and entitlement.

Such scooters have become increasingly popular as many mainland cities have sought to impose strict restrictions on the number of motor vehicles permitted on their streets. As of the end of 2010, Beijing, for instance, initiated a car plate lottery system, ensuring only a fixed number of new registrations are available every year.

This followed an earlier restriction imposed prior to the 2008 Olympics. This saw only cars with registrations ending in particular numbers entitled to enter the city centre on any given day. During periods when the level of air pollution has become particularly oppressive, this has been upgraded to odd and even numbered registrations only allowed to access the city on alternate days.

The problem has been compounded by the overcrowding that characterises the mass transit systems of many cities, as well as the difficulties associated with parking push bikes and motorcycles, with theft a continuing problem. In response to these difficulties, it is smaller wonder then that many commuters have turned to both electric scooters and balanceable electric scooters (also known as electric unicycles) as possible solutions.

Compact and easily storable, such devices are widely available in both physical and online stores. The sector is dominated by the Shengte, Aerlang and E-Twow brands, with most purchasers tending to be white-collar workers.

Typically, electric scooters are priced at around Rmb500-13,000 each, while the self-balancing electric unicycles sell for some Rmb800-10,000. The uptake of both has been widespread, with one Aerlang electric scooter, priced at around Rmb1,900, having received more than 2,000 purchaser reviews since making its debut on JD.com a little over a month ago.

Despite its convenience and stylish appearance, however, the rise of the electric scooter has not been particularly welcomed by transport regulators. Under China's current Road Traffic Safety Law, electric scooters and unicycles are classified as neither motorised vehicles nor non-motorised vehicles. This has made it somewhat difficult to ascertain their legal status when it comes to accidents and other traffic incidents.

At present, the authorities in a number of cities – notably Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Wuhan, Nanjing, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Nanchang, Xiamen and Sanya – have deemed the use of self-balancing electric unicycles and electric scooters as contrary to regulations. Three cities – Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan – have gone as far as to ban their use entirely. Overall, Wuhan has taken the hardest line, with users subject to an Rmb50 fine every time they are stopped by the police.

Given that the underlying traffic and transport problems that spurred the uptake of electric scooters remain unresolved, it is expected that the civil authorities will soon have to address the legal standing of such devices. Once this anomaly has been resolved, it is believed that sales in this sector will be set to soar still further.

Leila Liu, Beijing Office

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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