In 1935, T.E. Lawrence, AKA Lawrence of Arabia, died in a motorcycle accident, helping to establish the motorcycle as the dangerous vehicle of rebels for the 20th century and beyond. Jimi Heselden is no Lawrence of Arabia, and it is unlikely that the Segway will have the cultural cachet in the 21st century that the motorcycle did in the 20th, but the vehicles are similarly dangerous.
In data released shortly after Heselden’s fatal accident, a Washington, D.C. doctor revealed that a significant number of Segway accidents resulted in serious injuries. In fact, the admission rate for Segway accidents was much higher for Segway accidents than for auto-pedestrian accidents. Furthermore, over the period of the study, the injury rates were increasing dramatically: 5 in 2005, eight in 2007, and 25 in 2008. The types of injuries suffered by Segway riders mimics those suffered by motorcycle riders: facial trauma, head injuries, and broken bones, including collarbones, ribs, and wrist and ankle bones. Therefore, safety experts recommend using the same safety gear as when riding a motorcycle, preferably a helmet.
Although there are only tens of thousands of Segways worldwide, and their adoption in many places is limited by regulations on motorized vehicle use, they do have the potential to cause serious injuries. But do they have the potential to be cool? Up to this point the Segway has been a rolling gag, called on whenever anyone needed to look extra lame. It was called on to help “Weird Al” Yankovic complete his “White & Nerdy” persona for the video, continuing an entertainment tradition that runs from Arrested Development to Despicable Me. The possibility that the vehicle can overcome this humorous association seems slim. After all, the vehicle has been too heavily adopted by authority figures (Paul Blart: Mall Cop, anyone?) to ever seem counter-cultural and cool. The only way it can happen, I think, is for this death and reports of injuries to scare away the nerdy clientele that shies away from risk. The company will have to fail and the vehicle drop from the scene for a while. Segway will have to die in its current form before it can be reborn as the new, cool, radical mode of transport.