The Segway Tragedy's Real Lesson

The owner of the company that makes the Segway personal transporter, Jimi Heselden, fell off a cliff on his Yorkshire estate into a river while operating one of his machines. Mr. Heselden was a true working-class hero and widely admired philanthropist, who lost his mining job during the closings of the 1980s and used his severance money to develop an alternative to the sandbag that is now used widely by the U.S. and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, saving many lives.

What does this say about the Segway? According to a Daily Mail report, Mr. Heselden was riding not the original urban type used by George W. Bush, but an adventure model like the one described in the company's brochure:

The x2's deeply treaded, all-terrain tires can master intimidating patches of dirt, gravel, grass, or sand. A special adaptation of Segway Inc.'s dynamic stabilization technology and a wider track maximize stability, while the x2's higher ground clearance ensures that steep hills, uneven trails, and errant rocks won't impede your ride.

Why would such a brilliant entrepreneur ride this vehicle near the edge of a 30-foot ravine? Because, I suspect, he could control it well, because the path was on his property, and because the view was so beautiful. (When children are involved, liability lawyers call such a feature an attractive nuisance.)

Sadly one of those "errant rocks" might have defeated even the most rugged tires and the best stabilization system. But Mr. Heselden's own expertise and self-confidence might also have been working against him. The physicist and automotive safety researcher Leonard Evans has cited research suggesting that the most skilled automobile drivers have more accidents than others because their knowledge and abilities lead them to take more risks:

The investigators obtained the names and addresses of national competition license holders from the Sports Car Club of America. They compared the on-the-road driving records of these license holders (referred to in their paper as racing drivers) in Florida, New York, and Texas, to comparison groups of drivers in the same states matched in such characteristics as gender and age.

The results of the study are summarized in Fig. 9-1 [omitted on the site] which displays the violation and crash rates for the racing drivers divided by the corresponding rates for the comparison drivers. If there were no differences between the groups of drivers, these ratios would all be close to one, whereas if the racing drivers had lower rates, the ratios would be less than one. What is found is that in all 12 combinations examined, the rates for the racing drivers exceeded those for the comparison drivers, in most cases by considerable amounts. Thus, on a per year basis, the racing drivers not only had substantially more violations, especially speeding violations, but also more crashes.

From the information that's now public, Mr. Heselden was the victim not of spectacular folly, or of inherently dangerous equipment, but of the confidence that comes with skill and success.

Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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