Tension is simmering in many of the UK's High Streets, town centres and shopping malls, where a growing phenomenon is threatening to upset the peace. The cause of this escalating anger is the humble mobility scooter, a lifeline to many, but seen as a public menace by some.
Not too long ago, choices for getting around town for people with reduced mobility were very limited. There was the old-fashioned "invalid carriage", now increasingly a collector's item, or being pushed or propelling yourself along in a wheelchair. The alternative was to stay at home, a prisoner in your own four walls. But times have changed, the past 20 years seeing a huge boom in the mobility vehicle industry.
Advances in the power and performance of rechargeable batteries mean there is now a huge range of mobility scooters on the market, everything from lightweight foldaway models designed to fit in the boot of a car to rugged all-terrain types for taking their users out into the open countryside.
With so many models and manufacturers to choose from, the price has also come down, making a mobility scooter an affordable option for most people. There is also a booming secondhand market, with almost 6,400 used models for sale on auction website eBay at the time of writing, starting from less than £100.
Perhaps most important of all, the growing popularity of mobility scooters has eroded the stigma once associated with them. Attractive designs, car-like features such as alloy wheels, halogen headlights, luxury leather seats and cup holders have all helped turn mobility scooters from a utilitarian necessity to a desirable accessory.
And here lies the heart of the problem. As mobility scooters become more and more prevalent, especially in congested areas like town centres and shopping malls, there is growing antagonism from those who don't use them towards those who do, fuelled by the assumption that many users don't actually need them.
In truth, that assumption is largely unfounded. As more people live longer, it follows that there will be more people with age-related mobility problems – not just arthritis and other joint issues, but a whole range of medical conditions which make walking for any significant distance a real difficulty. Many of these users will be able to step off their scooter and walk around a shop with apparent ease, but walking home carrying a shopping bag would be a very different matter.
And then there is the sensitive issue of obesity. For many obese people getting around is very difficult. Critics say the solution is in their own hands, but losing weight is easier said than done. Whether obesity can be classified as a 'disability' is a whole other debate, but one thing is irrefutable – obesity is reaching epidemic proportions in many western societies, including the UK.
There will always be some who use a mobility scooter purely as a lifestyle choice, taking the view 'why walk when you can ride?' Or why tax, insure, MOT and fuel an expensive car just for popping into town when a mobility scooter offers a far cheaper alternative? And even then, who's to say they should be denied that right of choice?
But mobility scooters are heavy, hard and bulky objects, and anyone who has been run into on a busy pavement or town centre will tell you it hurts! There have been several accidents where pedestrians have been seriously injured by mobility scooters, not to mention road accidents. Latest figures from the Department of Transport showed there were 209 road accidents in 2014 involving mobility scooters – more than double the number in 2012.
Speed is a real problem – in two ways. Mobility scooters are limited to 8mph, with motorists and other road users saying that makes them a slow-moving hazard on the open road. But on pavements and in pedestrian areas, they move too fast for many people. While they should not be used at more than 4mph in busy areas, some users ignore that, and even 4mph is fast on a crowded street.
With some manufacturers now advertising cargo trailers, ride-on 'buggy boards' and even tandem scooters for two people, the tension between users and non-users continues to grow. There have even been calls for compulsory training and some kind of driving test for anyone wanting to use a mobility scooter.
As with most disputes, what is needed is more understanding on both sides. It is wrong to assume that just because a person hasn't got an obvious physical disability, they don't need a mobility scooter. Equally, some scooter users need to show more regard for their surroundings, especially in busy areas.
More could also be done by town planners and architects, who need to accept that mobility scooters are now a part of everyday life and look at ways to better accommodate them in town centres, shopping complexes and on main routes into towns.
Without doubt, mobility scooters are a lifeline giving renewed independence to millions of people. Instead of getting angry about the problems they can cause, better to focus on new ways to solve those problems.