Self-balancing motorized boards have parents, lawmakers and others struggling to figure out how safe they are and how to regulate them, because in most places the rules have not caught up with the new technology.
MILL VALLEY, Calif. — They are this year’s must-have holiday item, coveted by children and adults alike. Retailers are promoting them heavily online and on catalog covers, and they are an increasingly common sight on streets across America. But in many places, they are illegal.
Self-balancing motorized boards have many names: hoverboards, Swagways, self-balancing scooters and, among the Star Trek crowd, personal transporters. But whatever they are called, they have parents, lawmakers and others struggling to figure out how safe they are and how to regulate them, because in most places the rules have not caught up with the new technology.
Some property owners have banned them for liability reasons, as it is easy to see how a rider could trip on a bump or unexpected curb. And although they have taken parts of New York City by storm, the state classifies them as motorized vehicles that cannot be registered, so riding them in public can incur a steep fine.
In California, by contrast, lawmakers have tried to get ahead of the problem: A new law effective Jan. 1 will allow electric-powered boards to be ridden in bike lanes and pathways, ideally to help commuters break free from cars and bicycle traffic.
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“What we had in mind was the short-distance commuter,” said Kristin Olsen, the California assembly member who sponsored the measure, adding that the law can be amended by municipalities and private property owners who want to restrict use of hoverboards.
“Riding one of these in Santa Monica is going to be different than in Modesto,” she said.
In Seattle, the devices can be operated on roadways, shoulders, sidewalks and alleys, but not in bicycle lanes or on public paths. The devices are not allowed on roads with speed limits greater than 35 mph.
In California, the biggest beneficiaries of the new law are likely to be people like Madison Hirsch, 14, a sophomore at Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley. She saw a friend riding a hoverboard over the summer and wanted one, but her parents refused to buy her a $750 one she coveted from Future Foot. So she used money saved from birthdays and Hanukkah to buy one, and since September she has been riding it around town and at her school. One woman scolded her for riding it at the mall, demanding she get off and walk.
“I didn’t,” Madison said. “I can ride faster than she can chase me.”
This month, the police department at UCLA said hoverboards would not be allowed on walkways and in hallways after pedestrians complained about collisions. In London, authorities recently reminded residents that the boards are banned from public streets and roadways because they are dangerous.
The new California law mandates that hoverboard users on bikeways be at least 15 years old and wear the same gear required when riding a bike. At Stevenson School in Pebble Beach, students recently received an email reminding them of the rules: “If they see you without a helmet, they will take your hoverboard away,” said Joseph Cohen, 15, a sophomore.
The most popular type is the two-wheeled model that is navigated by shifting body weight and can cruise up to 12 mph. The devices are not cheap: A Swagway can be bought online for as little as $400, but many of them cost four figures, such as the $1,500 Hovertrax and the $1,800 IO Hawk.
Allyx Teel, a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley, said she and two friends posted a request for $300 on GoFundMe to buy a low-end one. Charlie Johnson, 16, of Mill Valley, said he was considering buying a hoverboard, but his younger brother had bought a generic brand online from China for $260 and it broke after an hour of use.
“I still think they are very cool,” Johnson said. “I know a lot of kids want them for Christmas.”
One is Jamarea Walton, 11, who lives in Oakland and tried one for the first time recently on the Berkeley campus. “I said, ‘I don’t know,’ ” said his mother, Valerie Manchester. She is concerned about cost and safety. “I would ask him to wear a helmet and kneepads,” she said.
John Soibatian, president of IO Hawk, said he had seen some competing boards explode, fall apart or split in two. “With the fake ones, you don’t know what you are getting,” he said.
Stores have been slow to stock hoverboards, despite anticipating a holiday crush, because of liability concerns. At Hammacher Schlemmer’s flagship New York store, customers can test its custom $1,400 electric gyroboard transporter, said Stephen Farrell, director of merchandising, but only when the store is not crowded.
Most hoverboards are sold online and are advertised on social media using celebrity videos as clickbait. Two brands dominate among the rich and famous: IO Hawk (Justin Bieber and Lily Allen) and PhunkeeDuck (Jamie Foxx, John Legend and Kendall Jenner). Television news shows have also gotten hoverboard fever: Greg Kelly of Fox’s “Good Day New York” took a minor spill on camera while doing a segment on the PhunkeeDuck.
Stella Dodd, 16, of Mill Valley, got a $400 hoverboard from Amazon seven weeks ago, an early Christmas present from her parents. But after three weeks, she said, she grew bored with it, and it now occupies a corner of her bedroom. “If I rode it around all day, I’d be fat,” she said.
There are few reports of people being ticketed for riding where they are not allowed. The official penalty in New York is up to $500, but police do not seem to be targeting schoolchildren and other hoverboard riders.
Will commuters use them, as California lawmakers envisioned they would? Hirsch, the 14-year-old sophomore, said her father recently bought a one-wheeled model, supposedly for her younger sister.
“He said they had to share it,” she said, “but we all know he really bought it for himself.”