President Bush took a tumble when he stepped on a Segway two-wheeled scooter last week. Could I do better than the leader of the free world?
By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online
"That's one of those things Bush fell off," says a schoolgirl loudly to her friend as I gingerly guide my Segway down a pavement ramp.
This is the first time I have ventured on to the streets on the contraption - which is something akin to an old-fashioned lawn mower - and do not appreciate being reminded about President Bush's recent mishap.
That a Yale graduate - not to mention a trained jet fighter pilot - should be catapulted so spectacularly over the handlebars of his Segway hardly fills me with confidence. I failed my first driving test and was never too steady on my Raleigh Grifter bike before that.
Nor had my nerves been steadied by reading the Segway's American instruction book. Its first page offered a hysterical warning, perhaps more fitting for a shotgun owner's manual: "WARNING! RISK OF DEATH OR SERIOUS INJURY."
...and he's down. (Blame it on the dog, Mr President)
Admittedly, I had survived my instruction course without suffering either calamity. And Chris Grindley, chairman of Planet Moto - the company which started importing the US-made Segways into the UK in February, seemed fairly relaxed about letting me off the leash with one of the £4,600 devices (if I could prove I was insured, of course).
Lean on me
The principle is simple. Once standing on the footplate above the wheel axle, the Segway balances itself using a set of internal gyroscopes. Lean gently forwards and the machine trundles forward, straighten up and it stops, shift your weight back a bit and it shifts into reverse.
Turns are executed by twisting the left grip of the handlebars. This sends the wheels in opposite directions, meaning the Segway can turn on a dime (or indeed a 10p piece).
But whizzing around an empty, flat car park within the BBC's walls is one thing. Navigating the pedestrians, prams, rubbish bins and discarded kebabs of London's mean streets is quite another.
The first thing to remember is that Segways don't do kerbs. Try to hop up or down any step more than a few inches high and you'd better be as nimble in your recovery as President Bush or "you'll have a nurse feeding you baby food for the rest of your life" - as one pessimistic bystander put it to me.
Fortunately, when you actually look for pavement ramps - though parents with prams and wheelchair users might disagree - they are hearteningly common.
However, the Segway's rather unforgiving suspension system soon makes it clear that - ramps aside - British pavements are in a ruinous state of repair.
Wonky paving stones, bulging subterranean tree roots and a variety of potholes make any progress at speed rather bouncy. It is easy to see how the unwary might come a cropper.
But the Segway's manoeuvrability does allow the more cautious rider to weave easily around obstacles and give other pavement users the space they deserve.
Know your enemy: No 1 kerbs
Venturing on to a busy High Street, I patiently follow in the wake of an elderly lady who periodically stops without warning to gaze into shop windows.
I am able to stop and start as her pace dictates, the whirr of the Segway's electric motors not even alerting her to my presence. When it is finally safe to overtake, she is far from disturbed by the site of the device. "I could do with one of them for my shopping," she says.
Going so slowly isn't really what inventor Dean Kamen had in mind for his Segway - which he codenamed IT and kept under wraps promising it would revolutionise the world. The device is supposed to be an alternative to walking, a way of allowing users to cover more ground quickly without resorting to cars.
Soon I am on a wide, empty stretch of reasonably flat paving - so I lean forward more aggressively to get a taste of the Segway's top speed of 12mph.
With the wind in my hair, I'm feeling surprisingly confident and wonder where President Bush went so wrong - but my high speed jinks were abruptly brought to an end.
Know your enemy: No 2 kids
No, I didn't go Airforce One over IT. I was stopped by the first of what proved to be a long line of curious passers-by.
The novelty value of the Segway is arguably a stronger social lubricant that alcohol - people who would never normally dream of making eye contact with me in the street now approach to ask me questions.
A young woman in a swish sports car pulls over to talk. A man whose only possession in the world appears to be his can of super strength lager also inquires about the Segway's inner workings.
Teenagers, an old man, a courting couple, a car designer, and even two traffic wardens stop me in my tracks.
"You look really futuristic. Like Tom Cruise going to work in Minority Report," says Gregory Barbier.
The flattery works and I agree to his request for a quick go on my Segway. Quickly over his initial wobbles - trusting the machine to balance takes a few seconds - the Frenchman is delighted.
"It's amazing! I love it!"
As the French know about style, I seek Mr Barbier's view on something that has been troubling me since I first set foot on a Segway. "Do I look a big ass on this?"
"It's fun," says Mr Barbier. "I'm a big kid. As soon as I'm enjoying myself, I never think of how I look or feel stupid."
I'm having as much fun as Mr Barbier - though I doubt I'd shell out £4,600 for the pleasure - but I still feel a bit of an idiot. At least I haven't fallen over.
Know your enemy: No 3 kool people
Few people I meet are outright hostile to the concept of the Segway. Many liken it to the ill-fated Sinclair C5, a three-wheeled electric car also supposed to revolutionise personal transportation.
I too have my doubts about the future of the Segway as I return to the BBC - passing the Blue Peter studio and almost crashing into a Ford Model T brought in to celebrate the car company's 100th anniversary.
As the song says "They all laughed at Ford and his Lizzy, but who's got the last laugh now."
Add your comments on this story:
I know what you mean about a "social lubricant". I'm learning to unicycle on my local cycle path and it's amazing how many people stop to chat. A Segway is a lot more expensive than my £99 unicycle but I'd still like to try one - I bet it's easier to ride for a start !
Phil Parker, UK
Fine for people who have trouble walking. But in a country where increasing numbers of people are morbidly obese, do we really need another means for them to burn fewer calories?
I think the Segway is a great idea - I can't wait to see Mr Prescott trade in his 2 Jags for a couple of these... now that will be a picture at the next Labour conference!
Martin Best, UK
It's too "in between". It's not like a car or bike because it's too slow, too exposed and you can't go long distances because you have to stand and can't carry things - and it's not like walking because you have to take more responsibility and care, you can't drink and you have to park it! Plus until all your mates have one, it'll be really anti-social!
This sort of device would be great to hire out at holiday camps or for travelling along the promenade at the seaside. As for it being an alternative means of transport I don't think so. What about adopting the Segway for next years F1 season it would make the racing much more exciting.
Alan George, UK
We certainly don't need another danger on the pavements. Pedestrians have a tough enough time of it already trying to negotiate inconsiderate cyclists and car drivers who believe pavements are for their own use.
I would use it to go to the gym.
Segway users beware. My friend was given two counts of driving without insurance for riding a not-so-disimilar electric Go-ped. This is rather ironic since he tried several times to get it insured, but given the UKs current lack of legislation for them, it was impossible to find anyone who would insure him on it.
Paul Maunders, United Kindgom
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