Great Scott! Last month, we entered the future. Rather, we went
back to the future.
Ask any fan and they will explain that October 21, 2015, was the
day that Marty McFly time-traveled to from 1985 in the Back to the
Future movies. Those '80s movies made plenty of predictions for
2015. How accurate were those predictions? How far have we come in
the three decades since those movies came out?
If you walk around downtown Vancouver long enough, you'll
catch a glimpse of one of those predictions. I'm talking about
the people seemingly hovering on small motorized platforms. You can
see them zipping around pedestrians like a mogul skier. If it's
the first time you see this, it's pretty startling. From the
waist up, you'd think they were levitating! But look a little
closer and you'll see they aren't actually hovering above
ground. Still, it's pretty darn close to the real thing.
There's no universal name for these transportation devices.
That's because there are a number of different manufacturers
and they each have their own models. There's a
"self-balancing two-wheeled board" that looks like a
skateboard except it moves forward in the direction the rider's
feet are pointing. I've seen a "self-balancing
uni-cycle" that looks like a Segway without the handlebars.
I've heard them referred to as hoverboards and personal
Regardless, there are a few common features: an electric motor,
gyroscopes/sensors that allow for self-balancing, and an impressive
top speed of 10 to 20 kilometres per hour. You lean forward to
speed up and lean back to slow down. They turn by sensing your
weight shift between your feet. According to one distributor who
has been selling these since April, these devices are still pretty
new in North America but they have been gaining popularity in
Europe and Asia.
I've been seeing these devices more and more on
Vancouver's sidewalks, and with any new trend, there is an
interesting legal perspective. Does the law treat this as a vehicle
like a Vespa scooter? Or does it consider it a toy like a Razor
kick scooter? The answer has plenty of implications. It would
determine if they belong on the road or the sidewalk. And if a
rider isn't following such rules, he or she could be partially
or entirely at fault in an accident. These issues matter if
lawsuits get started.
Under B.C.'s Motor Vehicle Act, these devices
are generally going to be considered a motor vehicle. Under this
Act, motor vehicles using B.C.'s roads must be insured and
registered. According to the ICBC website, the problem is this:
generally these "low-powered vehicles" don't
meet provincial safety standards. As a result, they won't be
insured or licensed for road use.
So if they aren't allowed on the roads, then maybe
they're like Razor kick scooters. Maybe riders should stick to
the sidewalks? Think again. B.C.'s Motor Vehicle Act bans vehicles on sidewalks.
It can be exempted by municipal bylaws. In Vancouver, however, the
bylaws aren't very friendly to riders. Vancouver's Street and Traffic By-Law No.
2849 has, with few exceptions, a pretty wide ban on any
vehicles on its sidewalks.
I hate to be a Grinch to those adding hoverboards to their
Christmas wishlists, but for now, riders are at the mercy of their
city's bylaws. Vancouver isn't the only city to disapprove.
Officials in New York and London recently declared self-balancing
scooter boards illegal in their jurisdictions.
Riders are in a difficult position. It's a case where
something new and exciting is not readily accepted in the existing
law. Perhaps authorities will turn a blind eye for now. But things
could change as these self-balancing boards and uni-cycles become
more common. Or maybe someone gets seriously hurt on one and the
news story gets a lot of attention. Authorities may eventually
clamp down on their use in public places.
The question then becomes whether the laws should be changed to
embrace this new technology. To get the necessary political will,
there has to be enough support from the riders. But since the
existing laws place the devices in a legal grey area (at best),
that may be a tall order. How could they take off in the mainstream
if the laws are so restrictive? That is the dilemma.
While the prophecies were partially right—we've got a
version of the hoverboard today—it's unclear whether this
will ever truly get off the ground.
Originally published inThe Georgia Straight
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