The hoverboard, a self-balancing, self-propulsion scooter, has been marketed as a recreational toy with great success. But hoverboards are increasingly criticized as unsafe, with users sustaining injuries in spills. In addition, the lithium-ion battery that powers the device has a propensity for igniting into flames. The fire risks have prompted all major airlines to ban hoverboards as carry-on or stowed luggage on flights. And the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has opened an investigation. But despite mounting injuries, several bans, and a lack of safety standards, there is now a push in cities such New York to legalize their use on city sidewalks.
Currently, hoverboards are considered unregistered motor vehicles in New York City, thus making them illegal to ride on city streets. But, Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Queens) has introduced a new bill that would make the hoverboards legal in New York’s five boroughs to be used on sidewalks. State Senator Jose Peralta introduced a similar bill.
The local lawmakers are advocating for recreational devices that can reach speeds of up to 20 mph on sidewalks — the same speed limit on many secondary roads. Under these proposals, hoverboards could whiz past pedestrians at the same speed as the vehicles on the street. What happens when someone doesn’t merely fall off of a hoverboard – but plows into a group of people walking down the street? Will we blame the rider, the device, or will we blame those who felt riding a motorized device on a potentially crowded city sidewalk was a good idea?
In contrast, California, now allows the hoverboards to be legally ridden on streets, bike lanes and bike paths, as a result of legislation written Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. Riders will have to be at least 16 years old and must wear a helmet.
In a recent press conference, New York State Senator Peralta said, “laws must keep up with technology.”
GROWING SAFETY THREAT
There have been multiple reports of hoverboards catching on fire due to potential issues with the lithium batteries. As of today there are 40 fire investigations in 19 states. Consumers have reported at least 70-fall related incidents to the CPSC. Doctors are noting a post-Christmas spike in fractures, concussions and other injuries caused by hoverboard failures.
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Chairman Elliot F. Kaye has warned: “While the fire hazard has generated significant attention, I do not want to downplay the fall hazard. CPSC has received dozens of reports of injuries from hospital ERs that we have contracts with and they continue to feed us real-time data. Some of these injuries have been serious, including concussions, fractures, contusions/abrasions, and internal organ injuries.”
The fire threat has prompted at least 30 universities to ban or restrict hoverboard use on their campuses and the list is growing. Nonetheless, some have demonstrated an imperfect understanding of the device’s regulatory status.
For example, Xavier University is asking students “to check their device and charging equipment to make sure it is compliant with Underwriters Laboratory or UL approved standards and certification. Packaging, devices and the charging equipment should be marked to indicate compliance.” Ohio State University has implemented a similar rule.
In fact, hoverboards are subject to no minimum safety regulations. Kaye has highlighted this gap:
“Underwriters Laboratories (UL) has announced that while components of hoverboards, such as battery packs and power supplies, might be UL certified, there currently is no UL certification for hoverboards themselves,” Kaye said. “At this time, the presence of a UL mark on hoverboards or their packaging should not be an indication to consumers of the product’s safety.”
HOVERBOARDS ARE NOT TOYS
You can find YouTube videos featuring people of all ages wiping out on a hoverboard, but many adults regard it as well-suited for kids. But, a hoverboard is not a toy and should not be used by children.
Legally, toys are products intended for use by children 14 years of age and younger. Toys must be tested by a third party and certified as compliant to the federal toy safety standard enacted by Congress, and to other applicable requirements.
Joan Lawrence, SVP, Standards and Regulatory Affairs and Chairman of the ASTM Committee on Toys, which oversees the activities of the F963 Toy Safety Standard says, “Hoverboards are appealing to children, but they are not considered toys. Since their primary intended use is for transportation, they are not covered under the U.S. toy safety standard — similar to the way bicycles, Segways, and powered scooters are not considered toys.
TSI President Sean Kane, interviewed by national news programs on NBC and CBS regarding recent hoverboard incidents, says that many consumers are confused about the difference between a hoverboard and skateboard.
“While they look simple, they are a combination of complex and sophisticated electronics that don’t need to meet any safety standards,” he says. “Hoverboards are not skateboards. This is a product with a lot of sophisticated components. People are going to fall off and we are going to say it is their fault. There could be a power supply interrupt or a software hiccup. We have much to learn here.”
If lawmakers want to keep up with technology, they should enact safety standards first, not rush to legalize a potentially dangerous product.