Walk across a street in America these days, and you might find yourself jostling for space with others scooting across.

Scooters, first popular in Germany in the 1800s and revived in the 1950s, are back in a high-tech foldable version, with kids, dot-com executives and parents taking up the foot-powered charge. Rising along with their popularity, however, may be the number of injuries they cause.

Dr. Deborah Levine, a pediatric emergency room physician, says she started noticing children riding scooters in New York City early this summer and saw very few of them wearing protective gear. A month ago, Levine says she saw her first scooter injury case in Bellevue Hospital Center’s ER in midtown Manhattan where she works.

An 8-year-old boy was playing on a scooter he had rented in a park. When making a sharp turn, he fell off, hit his head and lost consciousness, Levine says. His 12-year-old sister and witnesses saw that the boy had fallen and called 911.

Once at the hospital, the boy received X-rays and a CAT scan. “He didn’t remember what had happened to him,” Levine says. “The work-up revealed he did not have any serious injuries. But he was lucky. Had he worn a helmet he probably would have been protected from the concussion.”

Since that time, she and other members of the ER staff have treated children with fractures and severe cuts needing sutures due to scooters, she says. The staff is beginning to record the nature of scooter injuries to help raise public awareness about their potential for serious harm to a child and to encourage use of helmets and protective gear.

The Latest Fad

Scooters began zooming across America in popularity last spring, with tens of thousands now sold weekly in supermarkets, warehouse outlets and toy shops.

Whether a Razor, Micro or Xootr, all popular brands, the scooter is like a skateboard with two wheels — usually — and an adjustable-height hand stick for navigating. Human foot power propels the sleek frame, which can weigh as little as 6 pounds and can fold up for easy carrying. They range in price from $50 to $500 and on straight surfaces will move at 5 to 6 miles per hour. The most popular and least expensive models are made in China.

They first became popular in Japan a few years ago, where interest is now waning, explains Tony Farrell, spokesman for The Sharper Image of San Francisco, Calif., which sells the portable Razor scooter in its stores, in it catalogue and on its Web site. The fashion spread to Australia, Hong Kong, Hawaii, Southern California and eastward, he says, with both suburban and urban children and adults riding the wave. Teens already are using them to jump curbs and perform other tricks on skateboard courses.

Adults Use Them, Too

Some adults use them to attack their daily tasks faster. Britons are scooting to work in such numbers that the Corporation of London is considering banning the vehicles on a square-mile parcel of land within the city that houses businesses and pedestrian walkways. Police fear citizens might get hurt as scooters zip around corners.

Daniel Grieger, 26, who lives in midtown Manhattan, bought his scooter thinking it would quicken his daily commute. “The idea was that I could shorten my daily commute by some minutes,” Grieger says. “I have to walk 10 blocks since there are no suitable subways.”

But Grieger says Gotham’s sidewalks and streets were too uneven and the small wheels did not absorb shock, so he gave up on using it.

Unlike him, others are tempting fate in the Big Apple’s major thoroughfares on their scooters, and without helmets. In Southern California, particularly in Newport Beach, scooters are everywhere, says Scott Maroney, manager of one branch of Zany Brainy, an educational toy store there that sells 120 a week to both children and their parents.

“A family that scoots together, stays together,” Maroney says, whose store is only beginning to sell protective gear along with the scooters.

Rising Trend, Rising Injuries?

Although the Consumer Product Safety Commission says the number of nationwide scooter injuries requiring ER treatment remains small, experts and doctors say it remains unclear if the scooter trend will continue to rise and if the rate of injuries will tag along. Only 3,300 scooter injuries were reported to the commission last year compared to 95,000 inline skating incidents and 60,000 skateboard events. Twenty-five percent of the scooter injuries affected the head and face.

Dr. Ray Ricci, vice chair of the emergency medicine department at Hoag Memorial Presbyterian Hospital, in Newport Beach, says his staff members, like their East Coast counterparts, are seeing scooter injuries. “These scooters can go down inclines quite fast and people can hit their head if they fall off, like they do with bicycles, skates and skateboards,” he says.

Ricci says he believes that some of the severe cuts from scooter injuries, which require suturing, may be due to the sharp edges found on the vehicle. Abrupt turns also may cause people to fall off their scooters, says Ricci, who stresses that it is particularly important for children and teens doing tricks to wear helmets. Ricci recently also has treated adults for scooter injuries, including a 48-year-old grandmother with a dislocated elbow and two intoxicated adults for minor abrasions.

Ray Plato, owner Viza Motors, of Scottsdale, Ariz., a nationwide scooter distributor, says people should use common sense while scooting. “The media makes a big deal about the dangers of things like scooters when more people hurt themselves in other, more serious ways,” said an annoyed Plato, whose company does not show riders wearing protective gear on its Web pages.

Naomi Campbell, director of marketing for Nova Cruz Products, of Lee, N.H, the manufacturer of Xootr, one of the more expensive brands, says the company recommends protection on its Web site. “Our products also are not geared to very young children,” Campbell says. “It has too much weight to handle for children under 5.”

No Danger Data

For now, there is no scientific evidence that scooters are any more dangerous than other recreational toys. The Consumer Product Safety Commission will continue to collect data about their use and issue advisories should injuries begin to rise, according to spokesman Mark Roth. Approximately 10,000 ER injuries were due to inline skates in 1992, when their popularity was rising and when the commission first started collecting data about them.

Doctors note that took some time for inline skating and skateboarding to catch on and worry that scooter injury rates will rise. Erring on the side of caution, physicians and most scooter makers and sellers recommend riders don protection. Children up to 16 years of age should wear protective gear, such as helmets, wrist guards and elbow- and knee-pads when zipping along, they say. Adults also should protect themselves.

“Head injuries to children can hurt children’s educational development for life,” says Dr. Ronald Maier, surgeon-in-chief at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Wash., and a proponent of helmet use for cyclists in his state. “Helmets among bicycle users reduce the chance of a head injury by 80 percent.”

Maier says he has not seen too many scooter injuries in his hospital, but believes it is only a matter of time for scooter popularity to increase in his state. He suggests helmets could reduce risk of injury for scooter riders, as they do for cyclists. “It just makes sense.”