May 2, 2003

Controversy Over Use of Segway Devices Remains

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Phil Karnofsky ’06 owns a Segway, a motorized personal transportation device, that has become one of the more curious cases to come before Cornell’s Transportation Services (CTS).

The Segway qualifies as neither a road vehicle nor a permissible pedestrian device, under New York State law. Karnofsky’s woes, though, have attracted the interest of the Segway’s inventor, Dean Kamen.

Kamen holds over 100 U.S. patents, owns a small island off of Connecticut, and has invented numerous medical devices, including the first portable insulin pump. He spoke to The Sun from his office in New Hampshire.

Kamen sympathized with Karnofsky and other New Yorkers waiting for the state to enact favorable legislation. “I’m disappointed to hear that a student with initiative went out and bought a Segway and was unable to use it,” Kamen said.

Susan Powell, special programs manager for Cornell Transportation Services (CTS), has been working with Karnofsky and other universities in assessing the Segway’s impact on campus. Powell met with the University Assembly’s Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC) last Monday to get the committee’s input.

“[TAC] thought, given the law, that the University doesn’t really have a choice [to allow the Segway] until the law changes,” Powell said.

New York State Senate and Assembly bills legally classifying a Segway-rider as a pedestrian were referred to the each body’s Transportation committee in January. Neither of the bills’ sponsors, Sen. Owen Johnson (R-4th) and Assemblyman David Gantt (D-113rd) returned calls.

Karnofsky argued that Cornell is being too cautious: “[If] the University has jurisdiction over their own property, can’t Cornell just do what they want?”

The TAC and Powell think otherwise. “In terms of liability, it’s just too scary at this point,” said Powell. “If the University were to make a decision to allow something prohibited by state law, without real research to back that up as being a responsible decision, the University would be really at risk [if] something happened,” Powell added.

Karnofsky says other Segway owners have had more success on college campuses by simply not asking for permission. “It’s something people will accept through demonstrations, not research,” Karnofsky said.

According to Powell, since The Sun’s first story on Karnofsky’s Segway, calls to CTS from other universities about the Segway have tripled. Students interested in lobbying Cornell to allow the Segway have also contacted Powell. “Everyone’s looking for us to take the lead on this,” Powell remarked.

An apparent dearth of in-depth research on the Segway has stalled assessment of its impact. “I’m hoping someone in engineering will [look at it],” Powell said.

Kamen remains confident in the Segway’s chances on college campuses. He remarked that Karnofsky’s situation is, “really a bummer, because we think that college students and college campuses in general are the best place to get [the Segway] introduced to the public. Universities want to encourage sustainable methods of transportation, and they’re atmospheres where there are a lot of short-distances to travel.”

Despite the over 30 states that have Segway-friendly legislation on the books, Kamen feels that legislatures have been dragging their feet. “It may seem like quickly rushing to you, but to us it’s a problem,” Kamen said.

Kamen asked to be kept informed about what Cornell chooses to do. “I hope the student’s not discouraged,” Kamen added.

Archived article by Dan Galindo