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Segway Recalls 6,000 Scooters

September 27, 2003|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

A Jetsons-like stand-up scooter, ridden by everyone from President Bush to Jay Leno, has fallen down in the eyes of safety regulators.

The maker of the electric Segway Human Transporter -- which has been called both a revolutionary transportation vehicle and a silly fad -- agreed Friday to recall all 6,000 of the contraptions that have been sold because several riders lost control of them, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced.

At least three riders have fallen off the scooters when power lagged, including one who suffered head injuries that required stitches, the agency said.

Under certain conditions, the two-wheeled scooters may not have enough power to keep upright, such as when trying to speed up rapidly if the battery is waning, privately owned Segway said.

The Manchester, N.H.-based company said the glitch could be repaired with new software. Dealers will install software in the scooter's computer system to better monitor battery power levels; it will automatically shut off the engine when battery levels get too low.

It was unclear whether the voluntary recall would affect sales of the $4,950 machine. Developed by inventor Dean Kaman, a Segway resembles an upright lawn mower with handlebars. It has five gyroscopes to help sense body movements so that when riders lean slightly forward, the scooter zips ahead. When the driver leans back, the scooter stops. The machine can go as fast as 12.5 mph and travel as far as 15 miles between battery recharges.

Kamen, who developed various kidney dialysis machines and insulin pumps, spent nearly $100 million developing the scooter, which was unveiled two years ago on ABC's "Good Morning America."

Fans say the scooter is easier to ride than a bike or a skateboard. And the company, which has promoted the device as a way to relieve traffic congestion, has lobbied states to allow Segways to be driven on sidewalks. More than half the states have passed such measures.

Although the scooter has been marketed to tech-savvy consumers on Amazon.com, sales have been relatively modest. Still, the machine has generated plenty of publicity.

Besides Leno, David Letterman has likewise ridden one during his late-night talk show. President Bush also gave the Segway some notoriety when he tumbled off one in June. He was not hurt.

Though the public has been slow to respond, the machine has been tested by the U.S. Postal Service, the National Park Service and various companies. Officials in Seattle and Chicago also have bought Segways for use by meter maids and parking enforcement officers.

Locally, Walt Disney Co. workers have used a fleet of 13 transporters at the theme park complex in Anaheim and have been spotted driving Segways around Tomorrowland.

For their part, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies began patrolling Metropolitan Transportation Authority facilities last year with Segway transporters. "They're really pleased with them, and they plan to continue using them," said MTA spokesman Ed Scannell.

Since deputies started using Segways, he added, the number of vandalism incidents and robberies has declined. "They're very quiet and get you to places more quickly," Scannell said.

Still, the recall is likely to bolster critics of the transporter.

Segway "completely rushed these products into cities without adequate consideration as to the impact of public safety," said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Assn.

Ever since the scooter was rolled out, safety groups have doggedly opposed the use of Segways on sidewalks. In November, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to ban them from city sidewalks. Safety advocates argued that the 83-pound machines, traveling 12 mph, could endanger pedestrians.

But Craig Lucero, vice president of Seaway Rentals Inc. in San Diego, said his customers have suffered no injuries. "I've never had that experience and I've given thousands of rides," he said. "I think they're just trying to be extra cautious."

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