Mobility scooters are becoming the new menace on UK streets, driven by the growing market of cheap imports from China and Taiwan sold over the Internet.
Disability charities and politicians have raised concerns over the number of disabled people, but also able bodied consumers, who are buying scooters via online shopping sites without proper licensing, insurance and training. Top of the range models normally cost upto £3,000 but a quick browse on Ebay will highlight discounted offers for scooters retailing at only £300-£500.
Annabelle Waterfield, chief executive of Hertfordshire Action on Disability (HAD), is concerned shoddy products are putting both pedestrians and drivers at risk. "We have seen the problem escalate over the past six months. We know of huge container-sized shipments of scooters from China and Taiwan coming into the country at a quarter of the usual price. Most are bought on the internet and have not been thoroughly checked before people take them on the roads, the majority without training," she says.
Standard powered wheelchairs and scooters (known as Class 3 vehicles under the Highway Code) have a top speed of 8mph and HAD helps its members register the vehicle with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and arranges third party insurance. However there are cases of scooters being customised, 'souped up' by adding car batteries, so speeds of upto 20mph have been clocked, which is a real danger to the public.
A spate of serious accidents and incidents of drunk driving has led Alison Seabeck, Labour MP for Plymouth Moor View, to raise the issue in Parliament last month. She is worried that many people are abusing the system after witnessing first hand a woman drive up to a shopping centre, jump off her scooter and walk round the store to do her shopping.
She told AOL Money: "It is obvious from what I see in my constituency is that these scooters and the people driving them are not been trained and put through the adequate checks. I have heard of brakes failing, and people driving them on roads at night without sidelights. Accusations have been made that the able bodied are trying to avoid road tax by driving these scooters. Some are even getting up to speeds of over 25mph which is highly dangerous."
She highlights the example of a 79 year old man in Cornwall who died last month after being crushed by his mobility scooter when he tipped back on a slope. "What has really surprised me is that no records are kept by the police on these accidents. They are not regarded as road vehicles, but medical applicances so we have no idea of the real scale of the problem. However the law may change in 2013 and the police will begin to keep records which is a good step forward," she added.
An aging population and the rise in diabetes are factors which will mean more scooters will begin to flood the UK highways in the future, warns Seabeck.
The issue is exacerbated by confusion on which government department is responsible for the regulation and usage of mobility scooters. Even though the Highway Code stipulates rules on how to use scooters, under UK law the products are medical devices. As such the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has responsibility over the sale and condition of mobility scooters. A medical device cannot be marketed in Europe without carrying a CE mark, which is the Europeon kitemark.
A MHRA spokesman said: "If people buy goods from a UK website and are unhappy with the conditon of the device, we have the authority to investigate and close the site down if necessary. However if the product is bought from an overseas website, we have no authority. Our priority is to ensure that patients have acceptably safe medical devices and take prompt action to address any safety or performance concerns," he added.
Seabeck is lobbying the Department of Transport minister Norman Baker to investigate the issue, and he has agreed to consult with a number of government departments and relevant agencies. However a Department of Transport spokesman said he could not give any "details on who will be consulted and a definitive timetable for the consultation period".
But Eric Dickson, managing director of A1 Mobility, an online supplier of mobility devices, believes the root of the problem lies in the point of sale. "There needs to more regulation on who actually sells the product. If someone comes out of prison today, he or she can start selling scooters tomorrow. There are few checks made on whether the person is fit to sell the product. "If someone has a spinal injury they need a scooter with good tyres and suspension. But in most cases they could be sold a secondhand scooter by what I call the pitbull end of the market, who only have profit in mind not the health of the individual," he added.