Even in an age of high-tech hype, the Segway human transporter stands out. The launch of the device, which its makers insist shouldn't be called a motorized scooter, was a nationally televised event last December. The Segway quickly became a darling of the business and trend-spotting media and thousands of people have attempted to "line up" to buy a Segway through the company's Web site, even though the product won't be available to the public until sometime next year.
Nowhere has Segway's success been as tangible, however, as in state capitals. Until recently, all but three states banned motorized vehicles from sidewalks, but legislation to allow Segways on sidewalks had become law in more than 30 states by summer's end and was moving forward in virtually all the remaining states.
It has been a remarkable lobbying achievement, especially for a new company. Most attempts to pass uniform state laws move in slow spurts, with a few states taking up an issue during any given session. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, crafted model legislation for states to strengthen their public health response to terrorist attacks and other major emergencies. By July, however, that bill had been introduced in only 19 states and enacted in just six.
The 69-pound Segway allows a person to stand upright and travel at speeds up to 12 miles per hour. It's 29 inches across--no wider than an average adult--and its combination of five gyroscopes and 10 on- board computers allow the rider to maintain balance and control its movements simply by leaning. So far, serious use of the machines has been limited to places such as warehouses, post offices and police departments.
Segway LLC, based in New Hampshire, refuses to say what it's spent on its lobbying campaign, but a million dollars would be a conservative estimate. The company hired some of the top lobbying firms in nearly every state and its representatives brought the machine to state capitols, letting legislators take them for test drives around the rotunda. Legislators, in turn, expressed hope that Segways might alleviate all kinds of problems, such as cutting down on air pollution, revitalizing downtowns and providing accessible transportation to the elderly and handicapped. In the end, it seems, it was the dazzling product itself that swayed legislators. "We're going to have to outlaw it unless I can ride it," said Wisconsin state Representative Dan Schooff, anxiously awaiting his turn in Madison.
According to Matt Dailida, Segway's manager of state government affairs, the fact that the company's legislation passed so rapidly was simply a matter of short legislative sessions. Safety advocates, though, complain that it often came up late and was usually pushed through with minimal hearings or testimony. Even people who track transportation bills for a living say they were slow to catch on to the Segway blitzkrieg, their own reading or databases failing to red- flag legislation referring to an "electric personal assistive mobility device."
Dailida says that a Segway traveling 9 m.p.h. can come to a stop within 4 feet and that a series of safety tests will be carried out before the product will be released to consumers. For the most part, legislators were convinced by such company claims, as well as their own comfort level from riding the thing. They didn't demand hard data about reaction times or results of crash test dummies taking blind turns. "I've actually ridden on one and can assure anyone of the safety of them," says Pennsylvania state Senator Jake Corman. "You can't even fall off this thing, and if you bump into something, it stops."
Yet even if the rider is safe, advocates for pedestrians, children and the blind worry that bystanders may get injured. "There's not an engineer out there that would consider taking a quick joyride around the room an adequate test of any motorized device," says Gary Smith, a safety expert at Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. In several states, opponents managed to amend bills to allow localities to regulate Segways, to impose age restrictions or to require that teenage riders wear helmets. Safety concerns raised by the elderly put the bill on hold in the California Senate in August.
The Segway juggernaut, however, for the most part continues to roll on smoothly. Many legislators compare its critics to Luddites in the old days who wanted to ban cars because they scared the horses. "If I were the one walking the street," says Illinois state Representative Dan Burke, "I'd rather be hit in the ass by this device than by a bike."