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Perspective: Cool gadget, dumb idea

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper argues that the commercial delivery of the much-ballyhooed Segway human transporter is likely to usher in a new period of urban chaos involving man and machine.

The Segway human transporter is one of the neatest gadgets to come down the pike in quite a long time. It's innovative, it's compelling and it's entirely cool. But is cool necessarily the stuff of smart public policy?

So far, one-third of the nation's state legislatures have decided that the answer to that question is a clear "yes." A week before the initial deliveries of these trendy two-wheeled motorized devices to the general public, these states have agreed to treat the Segway the same way they do pedestrians.

Their acquiescence means that Segway's uber-scooter, which is about as wide as an average adult and can travel up to a maximum speed of 12.5 mph, will be able to operate wherever a pedestrian can walk. Dazzled by glitzy product demonstrations and incredibly effective lobbying, the hired help occupying the various statehouses have helped to usher in a new era of urban chaos involving man and machine.

If I were a trial attorney, my mouth would be watering at what lies ahead.

Segway won its exemptions to sidewalk safety rules by contending, among other things, that the devices are good for the environment and not a danger to the kiddies and old folks. Even the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration bought the argument and agreed to put the Segway in the same category as a motorized wheelchair.

If the guardians of the commonweal were imbued with the insight of Solomon, I'd probably be more sanguine about the wisdom of their policy prescriptions. In truth, neither the politicians nor the bureaucrats have any clue how this is going to play out on city streets.

The Segway sounds like a great way to get home after a long night at the pub, but the politicians forgot to ask what overarching good would be achieved by adding one more obstacle to avoid on busy downtown

If I were a trial attorney, my mouth would be watering at what lies ahead.
sidewalks--in this case, a $5,000 contraption. There's no good answer, because none exists.

Given Segway's high center of gravity and narrow wheelbase, its operators are going to have their hands full--even in the absence of wet or sandy conditions--in avoiding collisions with people who aren't watching where they're walking. It's bad enough dodging crazed cycle-riding delivery people and sundry skateboarders. Now we're at risk of getting creamed by robo-yuppies?

Mark my words: Urban dwellers being urban dwellers, nobody walks in a straight line on city streets. Once these 80-pound transporters start knocking into people, you have the potential for creating the mother of all head-banging scrums.

If man and machine are going to coexist, I suppose cities should carve up public sidewalks with separate

It's bad enough dodging crazed, cycle-riding delivery people and sundry skateboarders. Now we're at risk for getting creamed by robo-yuppies?
Segway lanes. Maybe that's the best way of getting past the verbal pyrotechnics, because it would pull back the curtain on the core issue in this debate: class privilege. Is it fair to legislate special rules to accommodate an expensive device used by a small, wealthy segment of the population? If so, then the conventional notion of technology's liberating impact on society will sound awfully hollow to this and future generations. But it is an argument worth hashing out before going any further.

I have a lot of respect for Segway's brilliant inventor, Dean Kamen, but the commercial success of his transporter will require special dispensations being handed out to his company. The rights of the few will take precedence over the rights of the majority. The question for you to decide is whether that is the best solution for the rest of us.