Born to be wild

They mow down pedestrians, ram-raid shops and fly off piers. Stephen Khan reports on the pensioners bringing terror to Britain's highways and byways
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The Independent Online

There has been talk of a Formula One Grand Prix taking place on the streets of London for some time. Ferraris, McLarens and Renaults piloted by the likes of Michael Schumacher would race up Oxford Street and around Hyde Park Corner, and chase down towards Buckingham Palace.

There has been talk of a Formula One Grand Prix taking place on the streets of London for some time. Ferraris, McLarens and Renaults piloted by the likes of Michael Schumacher would race up Oxford Street and around Hyde Park Corner, and chase down towards Buckingham Palace.

But such plans may have been a bit slow off the mark - a different generation of speed freaks has already conquered the capital. Indeed, all round the country, electric engines are purring as determined drivers grit their dentures and grip the throttles. These silver-haired racers might not be going head to head with each other, but the thrills are for real. And so are the risks.

Weaving in and out of snarled-up traffic and jumping up on to pavements, these menaces have replaced skateboarders as the pedestrian's enemy number one. Meet the Hell's Grannies - and Grandpas - the mobility-scooter riders MPs now want to force into the pits.

On Clapham Park Road, south London, one such ageing racer gears up for action. He eases out of the supermarket car-park, lulling passers-by into a false sense of security. Then, suddenly, through thick brown glasses, a gap in the traffic is spotted. And he's off.

In the first lane, a Ford Fiesta slams on the brakes; coming the other way, a motorcyclist's eyes suddenly bulge with fear. But our hero has judged his manoeuvre just right: using the camber of the road, he picks up pace and plunges down past the noodle bar and up on to the pavement outside the pub. Sainsbury's bags swinging wildly, he weaves through a shocked chicane of shoppers who are forced to leap away from the metallic green Sterling four-wheeler.

I catch up with the shiny-pated speedster at the lights. "Do you have a moment?" I enquire. "No," comes the response, somewhat predictably. He really doesn't. Before he can move, though, I thrust a piece of paper in front of him. It explains how some parliamentarians are so concerned about the antics of these antique daredevils that they want to regulate the use of their 8mph dream machines.

The threat to our bald eagle's fun - and to what may be his sole mode of transport - does not seem to be taken seriously, though. "I don't have time for this," he rasps, before giving the throttle a sharp twist and zooming off.

Perhaps he should pay heed, though: there is serious concern. Last year, 1,134 "adverse" incidents involving such scooters were reported. We aren't just talking squashed toes: eight people were killed. One woman is said to have careered off a pier into the sea when she lost control of her vehicle.

For Bob Russell, the Liberal Democrat MP for Colchester, the matter is clearly getting out of hand. He wants the electric hotrods subject to strict regulations. "It is a very serious matter for both the users and pedestrians," he says. "The machines can travel at 8mph and weigh more than 100kg - at that speed it could seriously hurt a toddler or an adult if there was a collision."

Elaine Whitty and her daughter Megan, two, know what he means. The pair were enjoying a quiet day near their home in Wythenshawe, Greater Manchester, pottering round the shops. Little did they know that they were about to become the country's first mobility scooter hit-and-run victims.

As the pair took a short cut through the local civic centre, they were oblivious to the man in a blue cagoule bearing down on them from behind. Before Elaine knew what was happening, she had been knocked to the ground. But that was just the start. As she recovered, she was shocked to see Megan pinned to the ground under the wheels of the burgundy four-wheeler. Casually, the fiftysomething disabled driver flipped his vehicle into reverse and shot off in the opposite direction, barging onlookers who tried to apprehend him out of the way.

"I didn't know they could go that fast. I'm 17 stone and it knocked me straight over, so you can imagine how hard it hit us," says Elaine. Megan was rushed to hospital, where she was treated for head injuries. Later, in a manner that smacked more of a bank raid than a mobility vehicle incident, the burnt-out remains of a scooter like the one involved in the collision were found outside a nearby pub.

At around this time, two suppliers of mobility vehicles in the Manchester area began issuing safety advice packs to prospective buyers. The move, by Mobility 2000 and the Wheel Chair Centre, came after a spate of accidents involving pensioners on scooters.

This is the strategy that should be adopted, says Allen Jones, the chairman of the Wheelchair Users Group and an electric buggy user. But he stresses that, for most of the country's 100,000 riders, these vehicles are a lifeline.

"The chair I use has become my legs. I simply couldn't live the life I do without it," he says. "Just as cyclists fall into good and bad categories, so do powered wheelchair users. The most important thing is that the suppliers provide proper instructions and training. We provide powered chairs for people, and we make sure that everyone is shown how to use the machines responsibly."

There are currently two categories of electric scooter. Many are restricted to 4mph and stick to pavements, while others can go as fast as 8mph and should only be used at the faster speeds on roads. While pointing out that the souped-up machines have a restricter button for use when driving on pavements, Jones says that some users give in to the temptation of a pavement burn-up. "There are irresponsible people who do things in their vehicles that they should not."

One buggy driver in Brixton in south London told me she had no idea what the speed limiter button was for. "I try not to hit people, but I have this thing so I can get around fast. I can't walk, but this does it for me."

That attitude strikes fear into pedestrians on the south coast, where dozens of mobility scooters swarm across promenades and piers on their way to the shops. One Sussex councillor has suggested it's time users were forced to take lessons. "There are a lot of older gentlemen and, in particular, women who have simply never driven before. They don't have the experience to realise that the speed they are going is inappropriate."

At Eastbourne District General Hospital, the emergency staff have had to deal with injuries from buggy collisions. "It is difficult to say how many, because it is the injury rather than the method by which it was sustained that is recorded," says a spokesman. "But we are hearing stories of incidents such as these from patients who arrive here."

And, while police forces do not have specific policies on mobility scooters, officers in some areas are stepping up monitoring. Often it is one, sometimes serious, incident that draws their attention to the new mobility menace.

Nowhere has this been more starkly illustrated than in Dunfermline, Fife. Just before Christmas, Alistair Mowbray was helping a family to select gifts in a charity shop when, astonishingly, he was ram-raided by an OAP.

"I couldn't quite believe what was happening," says Mowbray, 24, who run the Cobweb Foundation's store. "We are a charity and have a number of regulars who travel in on these scooters, and we've never had any problem with them. On that day, as I was talking to this customer, she pointed behind me. This mature gentleman I didn't recognise came rolling towards the store on a mobility scooter.

"He must have just hit the accelerator and came crashing through the door. Then he reversed back out really fast and took the door frame with him. The next thing he was tearing up the High Street on his scooter."

The incident raised giggles north of the border, as it followed a TV advertising campaign by the soft-drinks maker Irn-Bru, in which a balaclava-wearing granny ploughs into a shop in her electric four-wheeler and zooms out carrying cans of Irn-Bru. But the repair cost is more than £2,000, a big sum for a charity. Three months after the incident the door is still in a temporary, patched-up state.

Mowbray now believes that more stringent controls must be imposed on buggy riders. "There was a time round here when you could not go on the road on your bicycle without gaining a cycling proficiency certificate. That was a good thing, and something similar should be applied to these vehicles."

For now, though, there is no requirement for insurance, or vehicle and driving licences. One of the concerns raised by the MP Bob Russell is that the buggies often have a longer life-span than their riders, and there's a burgeoning second-hand market. In local newspapers and on eBay, hundreds of mobility scooters are for sale at knock-down prices.

Allen Jones of the Wheelchair Users Group still thinks that self-regulation is the best way to deal with the problem. "There will always be people who behave stupidly, but the vast majority are careful and they need to be mobile. What kind of life would they have if you curtail that?"

With an election looking, immediate action is unlikely. So, for the moment, the buggies with names such as Lark, Rascal and Road Knight appear to be safe. Whether the same can be said for pedestrians is another matter.