With a national lobbying effort clearing its path, a much-ballyhooed new "human transporter" called Segway is scooting through state legislatures, winning regulatory changes that allow it to be used on sidewalks and other pathways frequented by pedestrians.
Segway, a category-defying personal mobility machine that has been described as a cross between a lawnmower, a scooter and a chariot, is the brainchild of inventor Dean Kamen, who is famous for his invention of the first insulin pump for diabetics and a home kidney dialysis machine.
Segway runs on batteries and is propelled by dual two-horsepower engines, one for each wheel. The eighty-pound machines are balanced through a complex interaction of computing power and gyroscopes, mimicking human movements. Lean forward and the Segway accelerates; lean back and it goes in reverse; stand up straight and it stops. Segway's top speed on level ground is 12 mph.
So far, the governors of six states have signed regulations tailored to permit Segway's use in places normally off-limits to motorized vehicles. New Jersey led the way, followed by New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia. Seven other state legislatures have passed bills that now await the governor's signature.
Segway officials say they hope by the end of the year to have regulations passed in every one of the forty-four states whose legislatures meet this year. The remaining six states will be targeted next year.
"I've been travelling across the country and the response has been overwhelmingly positive," says Matt Dailida, manager of state and government affairs for the Manchester, N.H.-based Segway company.
Unlike cars, motorcycles and bicycles, Segway doesn't fit comfortably in any traditional transportation categories. By the letter of the law in most states, Segway should be regulated as a motor vehicle, which would restrict its use to the street. The company fears this classification would be a death warrant for Segway, if not for more than a few of its users, hence the intensive lobbying and public relations efforts by company officials. The tab so far: $741,000.
Segway wants states to treat the machine and its user like they do a pedestrian on foot, giving them free rein on sidewalks and streets alike. In the thirteen states to pass legislation so far, Segway has gotten most of what it wants. The few exceptions differ from state to state and include sidewalk speed limits, possible local regulations, mandatory helmets and turn signals -- minor qualifications the company is happy to oblige.
The main opposition to allowing Segway on sidewalks comes from pedestrian advocates who think sidewalks are crowded enough already. They don't want Segways buzzing past or running into them as they stroll down the street.
Bethesda, Md. resident John Wetmore, producer of "Perils for Pedestrians," a local cable TV show, recently testified against Maryland's Segway-backed legislation, saying there were too many unanswered questions about the safety of the machines. Wetmore's was the lone voice against the legislation, which the House passed by a 129-2 count.
"I'm pretty sure the 2 'no' votes were influenced by my testimony against the bill, but that obviously was not enough to go against the Segway lobbying juggernaut," says Wetmore.
Pedestrian advocates in other states have been similarly steamrolled by Segway.
One exception is Georgian Sally Flocks, president of Pedestrians Educating Drivers on Safety (PEDS), a pedestrian advocacy group. Sensing that she wasn't going to be able to stop the machines, Flocks decided instead to try and slow them down, successfully fighting for a sidewalk speed limit of 8 mph in the Senate version of the bill.
"There's no way we could have stopped it," she says. "I'm really pleased we got the speed down on the sidewalk. With the political system you have to be willing to compromise."
Georgia authorities are unsure how they will enforce the sidewalk speed limit -- current radar gun technology doesn't allow them to gauge speeds that slow.
Georgia Sen. Steve Thompson, Gov. Roy Barnes' floor leader, ushered the Segway bill through the Senate after introducing it at the request of a friend.
"The thing is ingenious. We had a lot of our leaders riding it," Thompson told Stateline.org. . He expects Segway to make it easier to get around Atlanta and hopes the emission-free machines will ease pollution.
The lobbying of state legislatures has coincided with a media blitz designed to stoke interest in Segway.
Kamen's invetion was shrouded in secrecy until December of last year, known only by code-names such as IT or Ginger, leaving the public to wonder what he was conjuring in his New Hampshire workshop. At its unveiling, Segway inspired reactions ranging from awe to amusement to yawns from those expecting something more.
The commercial version of the scooter sells for $8,000 and is available only to companies. This beefed-up version of Segway is now being tested by postal workers and police organizations around the country.
The company expects to sell the consumer version later this year at a price of $3,000. It has offered three models for auction on Amazon.com, with the proceeds going to charity. But you better have deep pockets if you want one, as they are currently fetching over $100,000 each.