Segway: Is it safe to ride?

Segway owner Jimi Heselden died Sunday in a Segway accident prompting fresh discussion about the safety of Segway electric scooters.

Boston police officers test Segway while on patrol on the Boston Common.

Are Segway scooters safe?

The death of James (Jimi) Heselden, the British owner of the company that makes the two-wheeled electric vehicle, has prompted the question.

Heselden, according to police, fell off a cliff in England while testing an all-terrain version of the Segway scooter Sunday. Heselden led a group of British investors who bought the company in December 2009.

A report published online today in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, says that injuries sustained while riding Segway transporters are on the rise, based on Washington, D.C., emergency room data.

The biggest problem seems to be Segway users are not wearing helmets.

Researchers examined the records of 44 patients who came to the emergency rooms with injuries sustained while riding a Segway. Only seven percent of the patients had worn helmets, which are not required by law for Segway riders in Washington.

The number of cases increased significantly over time, with three cases appearing in 2006, eight cases appearing in 2007 and 25 cases appearing in the first 11 months of 2008.

"All of the injuries were sustained by riders simply falling off, mostly from striking an inanimate object," said Dr. Mary Pat McKay of George Washington University in Washington, D.C

"Segways are pretty new to the marketplace and it's often only as products become popular that the risks involved become apparent. We urge the Consumer Product Safety Commission to assign the Segway a unique product code and collect data on injuries sustained from riding the Segway so we can develop a clearer idea of the scope of the problem,” says Dr. McKay.

Are Segway scooters more or less dangerous than bicycling or walking?

Pedestrian and cycling accident rates are well documented. But it’s harder to find good statistics on Segways, which is one reason McKay is calling for the CPSC to gather more data.

The Segway company doesn’t give out sales figures, but by some estimates there are as many as 80,000 Segways in use around the world.

One 2003 study of the stopping distances of Segway vehicles, shows that these electric scooters can be stopped in the same amount of time or a little faster than a bicycle traveling the equivalent speed.

But that same study notes that cycling on sidewalks produces a much higher accident rate than bicycling on the road. Most Segways are used on sidewalks.

The Segway company website lists the laws governing the vehicle’s use by state.

Alan Danley of Boston Gliders Segway Tours, insists that the message from Heselden’s death shouldn’t be that Segway’s are unsafe.

“We’ve had 41,000 people ride Segways around Boston and zero accidents,” he says.

He suggests that Heselden may have been careless by riding too close to the edge of a cliff. “If you stand in the middle of a storm with a lightning rod, you will get shocked.”

“Segways are extremely safe,” says Danley. “I commute to work on one. I’ve ridden one in 30 states.”

But he does say that while not required by law, helmets are mandatory for anyone 18- and under going on his company’s tours, and recommended for adults. “On our tours, everyone gets a helmet.”

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