The trouble with mobility scooters

The TGA Supersport tends to be bought by people who were fond of motorbikes in their youth, and many of its owners know it affectionately as the Harley, because its high silver handlebars supported by chrome springs are immediately reminiscent of the brand. It’s a Hell’s Angels look for people with limited mobility.

This is boom time for the mobility vehicle industry. The Supersport is one of hundreds of vehicles on display at the annual show of mobility scooters at the Birmingham NEC this week – a mini automobile trade show (but with medical mannequins instead of models in bikinis). Over the past decade, the stigma around these vehicles has eroded, and they are increasingly popular with younger people. Manufacturers are responding by trying to take the product away from its staid, slightly mournful medicalised roots and promoting it as a fashionable lifestyle accessory.

The steady rise in sales of these vehicles is evident in their inescapable presence in shopping centres, rural town centres, and high streets all over the country. Weirdly, there are no industry statistics that give an accurate sense of how the market is growing, but the Department for Transport offers estimates, suggesting that there are around 250,000 to 300,000 on the road across the UK, four times the total five years ago of around 70,000. Mobility scooter shops have opened up in most medium-sized towns in the past decade (also offering specially designed armchairs and beds for frail and older people).

The growing market in secondhand scooters, he says, is led by relatives of newly deceased users, who want to offload them quickly. He is annoyed by this increase in able-bodied users, saying they buy them “because of the fuel prices, or because they’re so lazy they can’t be bothered using a bike or a bus, or because they’re drinkers. Go to a pub, you’ll see them parked outside. We need to stop able-bodied people from using them. If every Tom, Dick or Harry gets one it will be chaos.”

His girlfriend, Sue Brett-Michaels, 55, a former healthcare assistant, now redeployed in a NHS library because her severe arthritis makes it hard to stand up for long periods, says people respond negatively to seeing her on a scooter, particularly when she gets up from it to walk to the car. “People wonder why I need one when I can walk, but I can only take three or four steps. Any more is just too painful. People tut and say: ‘These bloody things get in the way.’ I wish I didn’t need one. I would absolutely love not to be forced to use one of these.”

Although the market is growing, there has been such a rapid expansion of companies making the product that there is less money for individual suppliers, prices have dropped and companies now are having to compete on image. Only a few years ago, buyers just got to select between burgundy or dark blue. Now manufacturers in China and the Far East have moved from golf buggies or mopeds into the market, and are offering huge choice.

Explaining the Vegas product brand, Steve Hughes, commercial director of Roma Medical, says: “We want people to feel that they are going to have some fun with it.”

Tim Ross, TGA Supersport’s sales manager, says his products are for ex-bikers or for “someone who doesn’t want to be told: ‘Right, you’re old, you’re disabled, so get a red scooter. It’s a little bit modern, it’s a bit funky.”

Mark Hermolle, managing director of Kymco Healthcare, explains that baby-boomer scooter users are demanding beautifully designed and powerful products.

“An earlier generation would say: if I can’t get there with my stick, I won’t go anywhere. But scooters have become much more acceptable. Scooters are an extension of yourself. Just as you think, ‘I can either buy an ugly suit or a smart one’, the same is true of scooters. People take pride in these products. They don’t want to look as if they are driving around on an old bread bin.”

 

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