Electric Scooters and their Warnings: A Guest Post by Kim Wolfinbarger

Electric shopping carts are common in large grocery stores. Essential for users with mobility impairments, they are also helpful for pregnant women, elderly shoppers, and other who have trouble walking long distances.

A few months ago, my grandfather overturned such a cart in a parking lot and broke his hip. Interested in what might have caused the accident, I examined a similar cart at my local store.

in-storeWhile the cart appeared stable, red-and-white signs affixed to the inside and outside of the basket read, in large letters, “IN-STORE USE ONLY.” Two others warned, “INTENDED FOR USE INDOORS ON LEVEL SURFACES ONLY!” and “DO NOT TAKE THIS CART OUTSIDE THE STORE.” An instruction manual I found online had similar statements in several places.

instructionsHere is the problem: A customer who uses the cart while shopping will surely want to use it when taking groceries to the car. My grandfather lived independently and drove himself to the store, but rheumatoid arthritis made walking difficult. Using an electric cart made it possible for him to do his own shopping. While he most likely saw the warning, he may have dismissed it as a statement written to merely to discourage lawsuits. (This is speculation–he could not converse following the accident and died a few weeks later–but it is consistent with his personality.)

Clearly the manufacturer had anticipated that people would use the carts outside and thought this behavior might be hazardous.  But did the store share this concern? Since the cashier loaded the bags into his cart following the purchase, it appears that, despite the warning, the store expected him to drive the cart to the parking lot.

warning

The signs and repeated warning statements in the manual suggest a mismatch between the design of the product and the expected behavior of users. So how should the problem be addressed?

  • If the carts are truly not stable outdoors, stores should not allow them to be driven into the parking lot. Instead, employees should carry out groceries for all customers who use a motorized cart.
  • Offering the service is not enough; some customers, not wanting to be a bother, will refuse assistance if asked. Instead, when the cashier begins checking out a customer with an electric cart, she should immediately summon a worker to load the groceries into a push cart and take the groceries to the customer’s vehicle.
  • Manufacturers should assume that customers will take electric carts outdoors and design them accordingly. Motorized scooters intended for outdoor use are widely available.
  • If they have not already done so, shopping cart manufacturers should implement similar stability features.  As human factors engineers have said for years, a warning is no substitute for good design.
  • Good warnings tend to have a “why” that informs the user about the hazard when that hazard is not immediately obvious. If you though the reason to keep the cart indoors was because you might be hit by a car, your decision to take the cart outdoors could be different than if you knew the cart were unstable.

Kim Wolfinbarger is the recruitment coordinator and an adjunct instructor for the School of Industrial Engineering, University of Oklahoma. Her research interests include usability, product design, industrial ergonomics and design for special populations.

6 thoughts on “Electric Scooters and their Warnings: A Guest Post by Kim Wolfinbarger”

  1. That is really interesting. The only other alternative I could think of was having a disabling device retrofitted to the electric carts. So when the cart moved passed a specific point, the power would be cut or reduced to the point that the cart barely moved. I think that would force the users to receive assistance. However, the store would still need a protocol that called for employees to offer assistance first, and explain the carts no longer work outside.

  2. Thanks Kim for the guest post.

    It’s amazing that employees load groceries into the electric carts! I wonder how frequent accidents happen outside…. I like Alex’s idea of disabling the cart (it could also beep or trigger the reading of a warning message) and I also like the idea of providing a better warning–why isn’t there a visual of a cart tipping over? That would convince me from using an electric cart outside.

  3. To wake this topic back up… I saw a woman run the grocery scooter off the curb last night at a Kroger store in Atlanta. It took two large security guards to get it back up and off the curb edge, while the woman tried to stay standing.

  4. I have another complaint about these electric carts. I was shopping this evening and observed a store employee giving a woman a cart to drive. I watched the woman driving the cart around a store display several times, I thought maybe she was looking for something. I turned my back to get something from a counter when all of a sudden she ran into me and pinned me against the counter. I couldn’t move until she figured out how to put in into reverse and back off of me. When I turned around she said “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to drive this thing”. She got off the cart and walked away. I proceeded to find the assistant manager and he filled out an incident report but refused to give me a copy. He did give me his name and the store manager’s card but still refused to give me a copy of the incident report.
    I left the store but realized I was injured and had pain in my back & left hip. I went back into the store and asked to see the manager. He too refused to give me a copy saying that they would keep it. I said that was fine but I needed documentation that this occurred. After telling him that maybe I should call my attorney to get a copy he decided to give me a copy. He told me to see my doctor and agreed they would cover that and also said their insurance company would be contacting me.
    My question is who is liable for showing people how to drive these carts? I asked the manager and he said “we don’t have driving lessons for them”. If that’s the case then anyone can go into a store and say they are disabled and can get a cart to drive. I don’t understand how they can allow anyone to take one of these carts. The store was very busy and other people could also be hurt.

  5. Another update: After I wrote the original post, I asked several checkers at our local store about the policy. I was told that customers are not allowed to take the carts past the yellow barrier just outside the door. But policy does not always lead to practice. This week a clerk told the customer in front of me that she was welcome to take her cart outside as long as she brought it back. The woman was shopping with her husband, and they had two buggies’ worth of groceries. I cautioned the customer against it, explaining that the cart could tip over. The clerk then asked, rather meekly, if she would like some assistance. The couple declined, the clerk let the matter drop, and the husband made two trips to the car while the wife waited.

    I assume that the clerk was unaware of the stability problems associated with motorized carts. She apparently thought that the policy against driving carts outside was intended solely to keep carts from being left outside. I wonder if employees have been warned of the tipping danger, or if they have only been told that carts must be returned to the store.

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