First off, all of this fuss is not even over boards that really “hover,” as in balance without contacting the ground. The “hoverboards” making the news these days go by many names, including “personal transporters” and “Swagways,” and are actually more like Segways without the handlebars.
“Self-balancing electric scooters” would be more accurate, but definitely not as intriguing, and the name “mini-Segway” is just begging for a lawsuit from the real Segway. No matter what you call them, though, they’ve been the target of a lot of scrutiny, resulting in bans in some cities, restrictive legislation in others, and a protest coming up in New York this Saturday.
Once stars and their “hoverboards” began making news with them, as when Justin Bieber tried out the IO Hawk, or when Whiz Khalifa got arrested for riding one in at LAX, the scooters’ popularity shot up. See the hundreds of hoverboard fails on YouTube for evidence. Undeniably hilarious, the clips nonetheless illustrate the dangers of the new toys. Self-balancing electric scooters are banned in Mecca, Germany, Britain, and New York either on sidewalks, public streets, or both. Other areas, including some in California, have opted to limit their use to certain areas and require riders to use safety gear.
In New York City, hoverboards made news in mid-November when the New York Police Department’s 26th Precinct tweeted “Be advised that the electric #hoverboard is illegal as per NYC Admin. Code 19-176.2.” Because that specific code actually backs the claim that hoverboards could be considered legal, the department erased the tweet. Later the Department of Transportation clarified, offering a reference to NYS Vehicle and Traffic Law 114-d, and 125, and Article 34C 1271 which classify electric self-balancing scooters operated in a city of a million or more as motor vehicles. As we all know, you need a license and registration to drive a motor vehicle in NYC.
However, according to the DMV, these “non-hovering hoverboards” qualify as motorized vehicles that can’t be registered, and are therefore illegal to ride even if you do have a driver’s license. So based on this interpretation, people riding one in NYC open themselves up to a slew of violations including driving without registration or operating a motor vehicle without insurance. Fines range as high as $500.
While it would be annoying to be bumped by a fleet of teenagers gliding down the sidewalk on swagways, some New Yorkers don’t agree that they should be totally banned. Councilman Andy King has proposed legislation that allows self-balancing electric scooters on sidewalks, in parks, and in playgrounds, but not on the road or in bike lanes. King told PIX11, “We don’t want a hoverboard that can travel at a maximum of maybe six miles an hour thinking it can travel on the streets of Manhattan.”
It’s unclear if any of this actually matters to the personal transporter-riding populace because it all depends on whether the police enforce the law. Electric bikes, for example, are illegal in about the same way as jaywalking is, yet thousands of deliverymen in NYC ride them daily. A video from Casey Neistat asserts the same goes for personal transports; NYC cops have bigger things to worry about, and officers on the street might not even know the scooters are technically banned.
On the other hand, some fear a ban on swagways or personal transports could be an opportunity for the selective policing of one group of people, or one neighborhood, over another. A rally reflecting that fear is scheduled for Saturday, December 5 at 10 am in front of City Hall. Meanwhile, across the pond, an October scooter-ban protest in London doesn’t seem to have had much effect.
By comparison, California has passed a bill that will allow electric boards anywhere you can ride a bike. The law is set to go into effect on the first of January. It does require riders to be at least 15 years old and to wear a helmet, but allows townships to make the final decisions about hosting the scooters on streets and sidewalks.
In any case, Councilman King pointed out that swagways and electric skateboards are more toys than new modes of transportation. Using them to get around isn’t exactly good for you. He deserves some comedy points for his words to the Gothamist reminding us of the people in Wall-E who got too fond of their hoverchairs and ended up morbidly obese.
Of separate interest in considering these devices are the multiplying stories of cheap “hoverboards” exploding. Maybe this is just a fad that’s already in the ninth of its fifteen minutes of fame. One thing is for sure, though, your foot-powered skateboard won’t spontaneously combust.