Relations may be frosty between the US and France, but French commuters are joining Americans in getting US-designed Segway scooters, well ahead of their British counterparts. Why is the UK being left out of this coalition of the wheeling?
By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online
They may be viewed with suspicion by many Americans as the epitome of anti-war Old Europe. They may have suffered the indignity of seeing the prefix "French" deleted from toast and fries on American menus. But the people of France are still getting Uncle Sam's Segway scooters before the British.
The two-wheeled stand-on scooters - often likened in appearance to old-fashioned lawnmowers - are being supplied to the French transportation company Keolis.
Keolis - which operates bus services, light railways and underground trains - wants to hire out the electric vehicles to the French public at £5 an hour. Users will pick up and drop off Segways at so-called "oxygen stations" beside Paris's Metro stops.
This transatlantic deal seems to confound predictions that American firms would give France the cold shoulder because of Gallic opposition to the US-led war on Iraq.
And there are few inventions as proudly American as the Segway - if you overlook, of course, the British gyroscopes which keep the precarious-looking Segway safely upright.
Vice President Dick Cheney rode around his Washington office on one when his Achilles tendon was playing up and the machine's creator, Dean Kamen, wants to see US Special Forces troops ride Segways into battle - not exactly a selling point in France at the present.
So in spite of all this, how did the French steal a march on the British in using the Segway to improve the transport infrastructure?
Nick Stephenson - whose company Planet Moto imported the first of the scooters into the UK in February - says the British are still too timid to give the Segway a fair go.
"Kids accept it and jump on straight away. Adults say it's fantastic, but when you offer to let them ride one, they're not so sure. We're having to explain to them exactly how it works."
Soon to be a Segway?
While zipping around on mopeds and scooters is second nature to even very young teenagers across Europe, the British have often been more suspicious of two-wheeled contraptions.
Mr Stephenson thinks that even if the £4,600 price tag is reduced - as he hopes - the Segway will take time to catch on in risk-averse Britain.
"People would need to see it around a lot more before they begin to accept it. Maybe it would take someone like Richard Branson to jump on the bandwagon by getting his staff to ride around on them."
Kept off the streets
The slow-moving legal wheels of the UK might also prove problematic for the Segway - which is designed for use on pavements and would be taken on the roads only by the foolhardy.
Riding a Segway amid pedestrians is illegal, the Department of Transport told BBC News Online. "Very few vehicles are allowed on the pavement, only mobility carriages really," said a spokesperson.
While the Segway is indeed partly aimed at those - like Dick Cheney - who have difficulty walking long distances, a change in the law involving Parliament would be required.
Whether the political will is present to push through Segway legislation is unclear. But it is doubtful Parliament would show the enthusiasm exhibited by lawmakers across the Atlantic.
Dick Cheney gave the Segway a thumbs-up
The majority of states have already rubber stamped the use of "Electric Personal Assistive Mobility Devices" (legalese for Segways) on public sidewalks. And the US Senate passed a federal bill approving the use of Segways a full year ago - with only Hillary Clinton and one other senator voting against the scooters.
Despite the fears of some pedestrians, US insurance companies seem fairly confident that the only killing associated with the Segway will be the one they make collecting the premiums.
Charging a 40-year-old married male Segway owner up to $294 a year, insurance firm Allstate says big payouts are unlikely since the 12mph Segway is hardly a "crotch rocket type of vehicle".
British riders might just get away with mounting a Segway before the laws change, given its supposed docility.
"I've been riding around London since February," says Nick Stephenson. "Police officers tend to just give me a cheery wave and ask if they can have a go."