Hovering on the Verge of Danger

For some reason, people around the world are fascinated with non-flying “hoverboards” (I can’t help but laugh at the fail videos) but they are dangerous for multiple reasons.

Taylor Terreri, Columnist

Imagine taking a Segway and then removing the handlebars, and now you have a hoverboard (although it doesn’t actually hover!). For some reason, these self-balancing scooters have fascinated tweens, teens, celebrities, and even criminals (a convenience store was robbed by a man on a hoverboard) around the world. You have the controls of a Segway but the chill vibe of a skateboard.

Many celebrities have been promoting this product via social media. And these odd segway-skateboard frankenstein things do not come cheap either. The cost can range from around a few hundred dollars all the way up to over $1500, for more expensive models such as the Phunkeeduck. Despite these staggering costs, the boards still rolled in this holiday season as one of the hottest gifts this year, literally. They have actually been spontaneously bursting into flames, causing injuries, and causing a heated controversy about their safety and legality.

There have been reports of these self-balancing scooters combusting at random times, even when not in use. Although the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is very thoroughly investigating this issue, they still don’t have a definite answer. They suspect the issue lies in the lithium ion batteries that provide the power. Lithium ion batteries are the batteries that we use in many of our mobile devices and are safe to use with the right features, such as a vent and/or a switch that makes the charger stop giving power to the battery to prevent it from overheating. These features came from phones spontaneously combusting in the mid-2000s, when phone companies took the initiative to create new safety features for their products. Because hoverboards are so new and nowhere near as popular as cell phones, the initiative to create safety standards and regulations has not been very strong until recently.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has recently released a letter to companies making the boards regarding the safety of self-balancing scooters last week. “From December 1, 2015, through February 17, 2016, CPSC received reports, from consumers in 24 states, of 52 self-balancing scooter fires resulting in over $2 million in property damage, including the destruction of two homes and an automobile,” Robert Howell, acting director of the office of compliance and field operations, said in his letter on Feb. 18. This is quite a bit of damage for a little approximately 20 pound board of plastic to be creating in just a little over two months. Many of the boards manufacture from China. These factories are masters of creating cheap products quickly and efficiently. This sounds like a dream place to manufacture a product that would be very costly to make in the United States, but there is still a price. These factories tend to cut corners to boost numbers, often without letting the companies know what they are manufacturing. “There are some factories right now that will say they use Samsung batteries, but don’t,” a sales manager for Chinese hoverboard manufacturer CHIC said to Quartz in an interview in December. “They wrap a piece of paper around the battery that says ‘Samsung’ when it’s not Samsung.” This is clearly an issue because a Samsung battery has much more advanced technology, has more research put into it, and is likely safer than any other generic variation. If a customer reads the specs on their hoverboard and it says there will be a Samsung battery and there isn’t, then that’s a huge issue. The customer could sue for damages and dishonest product claims. Not to mention the fact that a board catching on fire, which is very dangerous in many different circumstances.

Not only is the random combustion dangerous, but hoverboards themselves also pose a risk of injury.  “I don’t know if I was overconfident, or what,” said Adam Collelo, a man who bought a hoverboard and was injured his second day riding it, in an interview with WebMD. “I kind of Super-manned off it and somersaulted.” When he landed he says, “my whole body went numb.” Collelo went to the emergency room and found that his radius (a bone in the lower forearm) was fractured and says he’ll likely need 12 weeks off from work. Common hoverboard injuries are broken bones, sprains, strains, bruises, concussions, and other head injuries. Many people don’t feel like they should wear a helmet while riding a hoverboard likely due to the “swag” factor. But Basil Besh MD, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons believes that “common sense dictates if you are going to use a hoverboard, you ought to take the same precautions as you would for using a [non-motorized] scooter, bicycle, or rollerblades.” So essentially, you should be wearing at least a helmet, and maybe some elbow and knee pads. And it’s not a good idea to be using your phone or mobile device while riding a hoverboard because it increases the chance of injury. Unfortunately, all the super “swaggy” things that you do and see celebrities do on a hoverboard are things you should not be doing unless you want to go to the hospital. As stated in the letter from CPSC, hoverboard injuries and damages are on the rise and will only grow without new safety regulations.

The reason for the lack of safety regulations is because of the lack of research on this relatively new invention. Self-balancing scooters don’t fit into any existing safety regulations so new ones must be created and this may take a while. These new regulations will solve issues such as battery and charger safety features, rider stability, and overall safety issues.  

Due to the massive influx of fires, injuries, and lack of regulations surrounding self-balancing scooters, they have been banned on sidewalks in New York, no longer allowed on various airline company’s flights, and the United Kingdom has begun to investigate and enforce hoverboard safety. In New York, the boards are banned on the city’s streets and sidewalks, because although they are technically motorized vehicles, they cannot be registered. Also I can imagine that they cause many problems on New York’s crowded sidewalks because you really can’t see a hoverboard from the waist up. But they can roll around freely in the city’s parks. Airline companies, lead by Delta, have banned them from commercial flights because the fact that they can randomly combust at any given time is a huge risk, especially on an airplane. “This investigation revealed devices often contain battery varieties above the government mandated 160 watt hour limit permitted aboard aircraft. While occurrences are uncommon, these batteries can spontaneously overheat and pose a fire hazard risk,” said Delta in a message to their customers back in mid-December 2015. Almost every major airline has banned hoverboards from commercial flights since then. In the United Kingdom, they have created legislation surrounding where hoverboards can be ridden and they also recalled around 32,000 self-balancing scooters due to safety concerns. And a man did rob a convenience store in London in September 2015 while riding a hoverboard, so not only are hoverboards causing damage and injury in the UK, but also crime. While these rules are likely spoiling your all of your rolling fun, just remember that catching on fire, falling off, and hurting others is not quite so smooth.

Right now, hoverboards are a very risky buy, and more research and safety regulations need to be put in place for them to be safe. If you own a hoverboard, please make sure that you don’t overcharge it and take the necessary safety precautions while riding. It may also be a good idea to look into what the company that makes your hoverboard has to say about the new issues and what measures they’re taking. Although I really don’t think that hoverboards are all that great, once the new safety regulations are in place, no one’s going to stop you, besides someone has to make those hoverboard fails videos.