Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 9/29/2010 2:07:51 PM ET 2010-09-29T18:07:51

A day after the new owner of the Segway company plunged to his death on one of the two-wheeled scooters, Washington, D.C., emergency room researchers are warning that injuries from the transporters are becoming more common — and more serious.

People hurt on the self-balancing devices are more likely to be admitted to the hospital, particularly with traumatic head and face injuries, than pedestrians struck by cars, said Dr. Mary Pat McKay, a professor of emergency medicine and public health at the George Washington University.

She’s urging U.S. consumer safety experts to better monitor harm from the tens of thousands of Segways in use nationwide.

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“What we need is a system to look at this on a national basis, which we don’t have now,” said McKay. “People are falling off of Segways and they’re really getting hurt.”

In a case review released today in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, McKay counted 41 Segway injuries among patients who came to the George Washington emergency room between April 2005 and November 2008. Of those, 10, or 24 percent, were admitted to the hospital and four were rushed to the intensive care unit.

“When I compare admission rates for Segway injuries for people who came to the ER, the admission rate was higher than pedestrians struck by a car,” she said, noting that about 20 percent of those patients are admitted, according to government analyses.

During the study period, the numbers showed a big spike between 2005 and 2008, with five cases in the last five months of 2005, eight in 2007 — and 25 in the first 11 months of 2008.

Facial trauma, brain injury, fractures
Victims suffered massive facial trauma, brain injuries and serious fractures of clavicles, ribs ankles and arms. No one died. Most simply fell off the devices, typically when they encountered an immobile object such as a bench, tree or pole, McKay said. Seventy percent of those hurt were visitors to the D.C. area, including some who tried Segways as part of guided sightseeing tours, the study found.

McKay’s study was completed well before the death of Jim Heselden, the 62-year-old British businessman who bought the Segway company less than a year ago from U.S. inventor Dean Kamen. Heselden apparently died after falling off 30-foot cliff Sunday while riding a rugged all-terrain Segway near the River Wharfe in Yorkshire, England.

Image: Jimi Heselden
Rossparry.co.uk/syndication - Yorkshire Post
Millionaire owner of Segway firm, Jimi Heselden, who died in freak accident after riding one of his two-wheel machines off a cliff.

Reached early Monday, McKay said it was too soon to tell whether Heselden’s death was a result of safety problems with the Segway itself, or some other reason. A spokesman for the Segway company reiterated that the details of the situation involving Heselden remained unclear, but that Heselden believed strongly in his new venture.

“He had a great, profound love of the product,” said Matthew J. Dailida, vice-president of government affairs and business development for the Bedford, N.H., firm.

“We believe greatly in the safety of the product when used according to our user guidelines,” Dailida added.

Segway company owner rides scooter off a cliff

The privately held firm does not release the numbers of Segways sold, Dailida said. Some estimates put the number of Segways in use at about 80,000 worldwide. Dailida would only confirm “tens of thousands” had been sold.

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McKay acknowledged that her study was very small and that 41 injuries were a tiny fraction of the George Washington University Hospital emergency visits that totaled 49,000 to 63,000 a year. However, she said researchers were surprised to see how many Segway accidents resulted in severe injury.

That also surprised Carol Drohan, 48, of Ellington, Conn., who was rushed to the George Washington ER on March 25 after a Segway sightseeing tour accident. A rubber street cone flew in front of her Segway, causing Drohan to fall. As she did, her right leg caught in the machine, dislocating her ankle and breaking her leg in three places. The ligaments and blood vessels were torn; Drohan had to have emergency surgery.

Six months later, Drohan's leg is held together with a plate and screws. She still walks with a cane and has regular physical therapy visits.   

"I just had no clue you could get so badly hurt on something that's supposed to be fun," said Drohan, who is considering filing a lawsuit with the help of Washington, D.C., lawyer Kenneth Trombly, a member of the InjuryBoard.

"I tell everybody who will listen to me, 'Don't ever, ever get on one of those things," Drohan said.

New emergency code needed?
To monitor injuries such as Drohan's, McKay wants the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to add a code that would allow emergency rooms across the country to specifically track Segway accidents. However, CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said the agency can’t add a category for a brand of device, but must instead monitor broad categories of use.

Segways are now included in the same injury category as four-wheeled motorized skateboards and scooters. Wolfson noted that CPSC has monitored the devices sufficiently to issue recalls when warranted, including a recall of 23,000 Segways in 2006.

“The attention by the agency has been to make sure that it performs as expected,” Wolfson said.

McKay said her study showed the importance of wearing helmets when using Segways and of making sure to carefully monitor the environment while riding the devices.

“They’re kind of cool, they look like they’re pretty easy to use, there’s an idea of ‘How hurt could you get?’” she said. “I think we’ve documented in this paper that you can get really hurt.”

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Video: Segway firm owner dies in Segway accident

  1. Transcript of: Segway firm owner dies in Segway accident

    MATT LAUER, co-host: On a more serious note now, the owner of that company that makes the Segway vehicles was killed in a freak accident over the weekend that involved one of his company's motorized vehicles. NBC 's Jim Maceda 's in London ; he has details on this. Jim , good morning to you.

    JIM MACEDA reporting: Hi there, Matt. That's right . The Segway Personal Transporter , called "magic sneakers" by its inventor and a Pogo Stick on wheels by some critics, has indeed made headlines here again, but for all the wrong reasons. A relaxed Sunday ride along the cliffs of his West Yorkshire property turned lethal when 62-year-old Jim Heselden plunged 30 feet into the river below. Police found Heselden Segway scooter near his body in the river. A tragic accident that was not supposed to happen on a Segway . Promoted as clean, quiet and safe, least of all to someone like Heselden , a self-made philanthropist who's earned a fortune inventing protective barriers for Western troops in war zones. In a freakish ironic twist, Heselden has bought the New Hampshire -based Segway company only months ago. Friends remembered him as a kind, giving man.

    Unidentified Man: I know he made plenty of money, but he got it, he spent it and he did -- he did good things with his money what he had.

    MACEDA: This latest incident raises yet more questions about the high-tech scooter that first appeared in the parks and bike lanes of America a decade ago. With their electric batteries, speeds up to four times faster than walking and gyroscopes to keep perfect balance, Segways were hailed as the future of human transportation. But the ride has been anything but smooth. Videos of Segway crashes and falls by the rich and famous , from President George W. Bush to celebrity interviewer Piers Morgan . Even the next-door neighbors have gone viral on YouTube .

    Offscreen Voice: Take your foot off! Take your foot off! Take...

    MACEDA: And a four-year study of Segway 's safety, just released this week, confirms that injuries like broken bones and concussions are on the rise.

    Dr. MARY PAT McKAY (George Washington University): The take home point from his study is that these things aren't toys. There are serious injuries associated with their use.

    MACEDA: True, Segways have helped the disabled and wounded veterans regain their mobility, but they never lived up to their ability. More famous as

    "Paul Blart: Mall Cop " scooter than the invention that some predicted would someday replace the automobile. And in a serious note, a statement today by Segway Inc ., Matt , is saying that it stands by its product and that Mr. Heselden would have wanted them to get back to work, serving the tens of thousands of Segway owners who safely use this vehicle every day. Back to you.

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