Guide dogs are being frightened by soundless e-scooters causing visually impaired people to stay indoors, two campaigners have claimed.
Clare Williams and Louise Connopp are members of Birmingham Sight Loss Council, a volunteer group led by blind and partially sighted members and funded by Thomas Pocklington Trust. They say e-scooters, which returned to the streets in July following a four month absence, are causing guide dogs to stop in their tracks, confused and scared.
The revive scheme is run by operator Beryl which took the contract with Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) following an earlier trial by Voi. Adding to the issue are illegal, privately owned e-scooters which are sold in shops despite not being allowed on the streets say the campaigners.
“It really frightens my dog when they go past her very close by,” said Clare, who has a Fox Red Labrador/Retriever cross called Quita. “And it does scare me as well, obviously, because I don’t know that they’re coming.”
Quita is Clare’s second guide dog in 20 years since the day her life changed forever. Driving to her job as head teacher of a primary school in Birmingham, she noticed the railings at the side of the road looked strangely wavy.
Her optician sent her straight to the eye hospital where she was diagnosed with macular degeneration caused by extreme short-sightedness and today she can see just from the edges of her vision.
She said getting a guide dog “revolutionised” her life making it much easier to get about: “You also get your independence so that you can do things without having to ask somebody or wait for somebody.”
Clare and Louise want e-scooters to be used safely and responsibly but think without government legislation to set official rules the devices are causing havoc for people with limited sight.
Both women value their independence and want other visually impaired people to be able to get about confidently, something they say increased during the four months the e-scooter scheme was paused.
But with their return, they fear people who need canes and guide dogs will become more isolated, choosing to stay indoors unless the government brings in legislation.
Louise, 37, was born partially sighted and registered blind (now severely sight-impaired) when she turned seven.
She described herself as growing up in a “sighted world” and attended a mainstream school with no peer support – she didn’t even meet another visually impaired person until she was 30.
“I’d always been the odd one out; I was bullied all the way through school, college and then work where I’ve been discriminated against a few times,” she said.
It was when she started working for a local sight-loss charity that she began to feel more comfortable.
“Suddenly I wasn’t the odd one out, sighted people were, and it was – pardon the pun! – an eye opener because it was just like, wow, these people kind of just get it, like they understand, I haven’t got to explain what I can and can’t see or do. I’m not a ‘woe is me’ person, I’m a glass half full girl, but it’s taken all of that bad baggage to get to that point.”
Birmingham Sight Loss Council was involved in discussions with TfWM and Voi from the beinging of the trial which started in October 2020 and continue to be part of stakeholder meetings.
Clare and Louise said their concerns were listened to and they managed to get mandatory parking zones in the city centre (which Beryl has brought in everywhere) and number plates.
But they are keen for greater action, including adding an acoustic noise to devices so that visually impaired people and their dogs can hear them coming.
Members even took part in a research project by the University of Warwick to select the best noise to use but it is yet to be adopted.
Another concern is some of the bays where e-scooters and bikes are left are on the pavement, with a painted border, rather than a physical structure which cane users reportedly find hard to detect (although Beryl said it uses raised paint, compliant with Department for Transport (DfT) regulations).
Currently E-scooters are also classed as bikes and can used on bike lanes, some of which are on pavements where Clare said “people expect to be safe” not to come across a powered device at 30mph.
Clare and Louise are keen to stress they don’t want to get rid of the devices – seeing how useful they are – but they want to continue working with TfWM and Beryl and to push for better safety features and legislation for everybody.
Louise said: “We want to be able to take responsibility for our own safety and we don’t have that option at the minute; there isn’t a sound, they’re being ridden on our pavements.
“You know, I always say if I decided to just walk down the middle of the street I’d be whisked off by men in white coats.
“That’s for the cars, [the pavement] is for us; you do you and we will all get on quite well in society.”
A spokesperson for Beryl said: “Safety is paramount to us and we are constantly reviewing our schemes and processes alongside our local authority partners to ensure they are being delivered as effectively as possible.
“We’re currently monitoring and evaluating a number of further safety measures, including acoustic alerts for e-scooters and BlindSquare [an app which helps blind people in their daily lives], in line with advice from the Department for Transport (DfT). As we expand the scheme, we will deploy physical infrastructure where appropriate, in consultation with landowners and local authorities.
“We have established relationships with sight loss councils and charities such as RNIB and Thomas Pocklington Trust and have consulted with them across all of our current schemes. We hold regular stakeholder sessions to gain feedback, as well as anonymous surveys to measure progress, walking tours of bays and ‘meet the vehicle’ sessions.”