The New York City Segway: A Hiccup in the Vehicle and Traffic Law

By Benjamin Fox, Albany Government Law Review

The Segway was introduced to the public in December of 2001.[1]  At that time its creators and members of the public believed it would be the new mode of travel for the twenty first century.[2]  Few were purchased, and current estimates suggest only 80,000 units have been sold worldwide.[3]  Considering these statistics, the laws regarding (and in effect limiting) use of the Segway in New York City seem bizarre and unnecessary.  For that reason, the statutory definition of “motor vehicle” should be amended to exclude all Segways from its reach.  In doing so, it is crucial to understand how the Segway fits into the Vehicle and Traffic Law (hereinafter VTL). 

A. Segways of NYC:  Issues in Statutory Definition

A motor vehicle is defined as “[any] vehicle operated or driven upon a public highway….”[4]  A public highway is defined as “any highway, road, street, avenue, alley, public place, public driveway or any other public way.”[5]  Most of these terms are already defined in the VTL but “public way,” perhaps the most vague term, is not.  Luckily subsequent case law has clarified its meaning.  A public way is simply “a way over which public have a general right of passage.”[6]  Hence, even a sidewalk still “falls within the ambit of public highway,” regardless of the fact that it is defined elsewhere in the statute.[7]

The definition of “motor vehicle” additionally requires that the vehicle be “propelled by any power other than muscular power except . . . electric personal assistive mobility devices operated outside a city with a population of one million or more.”[8]  Thus, any Segway operated within New York City – the only city in New York State with a population of one million or more – is a motor vehicle.

In the event that a vehicle does meet the definition of “motor vehicle,” it is required to be registered and insured.[9]  And if the vehicle is not insured, a motorist’s license can be revoked for one year![10]

Such laws are needlessly harsh.  This becomes particularly clear when the Segway is compared with one of New York City’s best-recognized alternatives to automobile transportation – the bicycle.

B. Bicyclists in New York City: An Interesting Comparison

According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2011 there were approximately 17,000 bicyclists in New York City.[11]  And while a Segway’s top speed is 12.5 mph, the New York Times quoted a Parks Department Spokesperson saying that “15 miles per hour on a bike is a ‘snails pace,’” and that bicyclists are allowed to go just as fast as current speed limits allow.[12]

Bicycle related accidents and deaths are also cause for concern.  The “ghost bike” memorials created by the Street Memorial Project in 2005, acknowledged 24 bicycle related deaths in 2011 alone.[13]  In addition, a study confirmed that approximately 8% of vehicle related injuries in the City were attributed to bicycle accidents (accounting for approximately 3,500 accidents) between 1996 and 2003.[14]

On the other hand, only a handful of Segway related accidents resulting in injury or death have occurred in the 11 years of its existence.[15]  Of course it would be foolish to ignore the fact that these low numbers are due in part to the relative lack of Segways on the road.

Nevertheless, there is little reason to believe that Segways are any more dangerous than bicycles, and requiring Segway operators to carry insurance makes no more sense than not requiring bicyclists to ride with the same financial security.[16]  Moreover, the fact that it is possible for a Segway operator to lose their license for driving the vehicle without insurance is unsettling.

C. Conclusion

Segways seem to be afflicted by a “fear of the new” as it is a recent and  odd-looking mode of transportation.  Yet, the Segway is not that new, and since the Segway has been excepted from the legislature’s definition of motor vehicle in every other part of the state there is seemingly no credible reason why it should not be done for New York City.  A few legislators have pointed to the fact that the Segway will clog up the roads, but considering New York’s already congested streets and the sluggish pace of Segway sales in general, this rationalization is ill founded.[17]  New York should spend its time on more important matters and stop subjecting a niche group to the possibility of unnecessarily harsh statutory penalties.


[1] Dylan Tweeny, Dec. 3, 2001: Segway Starts Rolling, Wired (Dec. 3, 2001), http://www.wired.com/thisdayintech/2009/12/1203segway-unveiled/.

[2] See id.

[3] David Scott, Segway: Is it Safe to Ride?, The Christian Science Monitor (September 28 2010), http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2010/0928/Segway-Is-it-safe-to-ride.

[4] N.Y. Veh. & Traf. Law § 125 (McKinney 2011).

[5] Id. at § 134.

[6] People v. Thew, 376 N.E.2d  906, 906 (N.Y. 1978); See also Martinez v. Hitachi Const. Machinery Co., 829 N.Y.S.2d 814, 817 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2006).

[7] In re Vincent H., 775 N.Y.S.2d 457, 461 (N.Y. Fam. Ct. 2004).

[8] Veh. & Traf. § 125 (a-1) ( McKinney 2011).

[9] Id. at §§ 312, 401.

[10] Id. at §§ 318 (2) (a) – (b).

[11] Tedd Mann, Rides in Five Burroughs Call Attention to Bike Safety, Wall Street J. (Mar. 19 2012), http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304636404577289942269031980.html.

[12] Joseph Goldstein, Parks Department Disavows Speed Limit For Bicycles, N.Y. Times (Mar. 23 2011), http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/24/nyregion/24bike.html.

[13] Mann, supra note 11.

[14]  N.Y.C. Dep’t of Health and Mental Hygiene, et. al., Bicycle Fatalities and Serious Injuries in New York City: 1996 – 2005, available at www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/bicyclefatalities.pdf

[15] Dan Childs, Segway Boss Jimi Heselden Dies on Segway: Are Segways Safe?, ABC News (September 27, 2010), http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Wellness/segway-accident-kills-jimi-heselden-segway-boss/story?id=11736855.

[16] However, it is important to keep in mind that bicycles are not motor vehicles because they are muscle powered.

[17] See Frank Lombardi, Mayor Bloomberg Stands up on Segway Issue, Said he’d Allow Two—Wheel Devices on NYC streets, N.Y. Daily News (August 14, 2009), http://articles.nydailynews.com/2009-08-14/news/17930749_1_pedicabs-mayor-bloomberg-segway-personal-transporter.

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5 Comments

Filed under Criminal Law, New York Court of Appeals, Prosecution, Vehicle and Traffic Law

5 responses to “The New York City Segway: A Hiccup in the Vehicle and Traffic Law

  1. Freddie

    Great post I have a segway, I love in Brooklyn ny, I would love to ride it all the time, but I don’t want to break the law:(

  2. Estelle, Sr

    I am 69 years old and have been on a Segway for the first time on the streets of Manila, Philippines. I was surprised to find stable they are. I have no fear of them now. They are safer than bicycles.

    Ny has always been behind from the inception of our country. NY was one of the last to agree to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

    Wil NY never learn?

    I want to ride a Segway around NYC!!
    Estelle, Sr.

  3. Geoff

    I’m sorry – I don’t exactly get it.
    What I’m most curious about is if, in NYC, one can drive on the sidewalks and other public right of ways (as say a motorized wheelchair of cart may).

    By the above, in NYC – a Segway is a motor vehicle, mainly by where it is driven. So if it I drive on ” any highway, road, street, avenue, alley, public place, public driveway or any other public way.”, presumably includes the sidewalk – is the requirement only that it is both registered, insured and the driver licensed? (Which seems reasonable).

    Or does the making it a motor vehicle mean driving it on the sidewalk, (like a 10 ton truck), is shall we say, frowned upon?

    Thanks.

  4. Geoff

    And now with further research – I see the bottom line is – NYC has to specifically outlaw them, because NYS specifically allows them –

    An Act concerning electric personal assistive mobility devices and amending P.L.2001, c.430.

    Be It Enacted by the Senate and General Assembly of the State of New Jersey:

    1. Section 1 of P.L.2001, c.430 (C.39:4-14.10) is amended to read as follows:

    C.39:4-14.10 Electric personal assistive mobility device defined; regulations concerning.
    1. a. As used in this act, “electric personal assistive mobility device” means a self-balancing non-tandem two wheeled device designed to transport one person which uses an electric propulsion system with average power of 750 watts (one horsepower), whose maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by such a propulsion system while operated by a person weighing 170 pounds is less than 20 miles per hour. The device shall not be considered a motorized wheelchair, motorized bicycle, motorcycle, motorized scooter, motorized skateboard, vehicle or motor vehicle.
    b. An electric personal assistive mobility device may be operated on the public highways, sidewalks and bicycle paths of the State. Every person operating such a device shall be granted all of the rights and be subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a bicycle by chapter four of Title 39 of the Revised Statutes except as to those provisions thereof which by their nature can have no application. An electric personal assistive mobility device shall be subject to the safety and equipment requirements applicable to the bicycle provisions of chapter 4 of Title 39 of the Revised Statutes, except as to those provisions thereof which by their nature can have no application.
    c. The operator of an electric personal assistive mobility device shall not be required to obtain a driver’s license therefor or to register the device. The operator shall not be required to furnish proof of having liability insurance for the device or other proof of financial responsibility.
    d. The governing body of any municipality may, by ordinance, regulate the operation of electric personal assistive mobility devices upon the roadways and public properties under municipal jurisdiction. The State or the governing body of any county or municipality may prohibit or regulate their operation on any public highway under its jurisdiction.
    e. Notwithstanding the other provisions of this section, an operator of an electric personal assistive mobility device shall:
    (1) wear a helmet while operating that device; and
    (2) be 16 years of age or older, except for an operator with a mobility-related disability.

    2. This act shall take effect immediately.

    Approved June 8, 2003.

  5. norm

    I’ve been run off the sidewalk and into traffic twice in midtown Manhattan by Segways. They have no place in the city. How many different vehicles can Manhattan support at once. It’s just too crowded and dangerous. What next, Segways in the grocery stores?

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