BY ED BLAZINA
TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
PITTSBURGH — Hoverboards went from virtually unknown in the United States a year ago to the hottest gadget around this past Christmas.
Estimates are that manufacturers, most of them in China, have sold millions of the two-wheel, battery-operated vehicles here in the past year for prices ranging from $250 to $1,500.
Now, because of concerns about spontaneous fires and injuries from falling off them, hoverboards are under review by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, airlines and professional sports teams.
Universities are banning them. Amazon is offering refunds to purchasers. And voluntary standards groups Underwriters Laboratories and ASTM are developing the first set of safety standards for hoverboards.
Hoverboards are about the size of a skateboard, but instead of the rider standing atop the wheels with the board pointed nose-forward, he stands between the wheels with the board parallel to his shoulder. The rider balances atop the wheel wells as the device moves forward. Picture a Segway, the clunky device used for walking tours, with smaller wheels and no handlebars to help with balance.
Fires, serious injuries
Safety Commission Chairman Elliot Kaye issued a statement last week in which he said the agency is “working diligently” at its lab in Rockville, Md., to determine the cause of fires that may be linked to the lithium-ion batteries used to power hoverboards. He recommended riders never recharge the batteries while they are asleep or out of the house and called for all riders to wear safety equipment such as a skateboard helmet, knee pads and elbow pads.
The agency also is investigating hoverboards manufactured or distributed by 13 companies.
Spokeswoman Patty Davis said the agency has received 40 reports of hoverboards catching fire and dozens of reports since August of riders receiving moderate to serious injuries from falling off them. Kaye said the boards can lurch and throw a rider off balance, something the agency suspects may be related to the size or weight of the rider.
Kaye called it “unacceptable” that hoverboards went on sale with no safety standards, and his agency is working with UL and ASTM to develop some. Although compliance is voluntary, most manufacturers seek UL and-or ASTM approval because stores often won’t sell products without it.
Amazon halts sales
Problems with the hoverboard are “an example of what can happen” when products go to market without safety standards, said John Drengenberg, an electrical engineer and consumer safety director at UL, based in Northbrook, Ill. He said the agency will work with manufacturers and experts, but it could take nine months or more to develop standards.
“The reality is once you develop a standard, if you want to sell hoverboards, no reputable retailer is going to sell the product if it doesn’t meet the standard,” he said.
ATSM, based near Philadelphia, works in a similar manner and could take two years to produce standards, said Len Morrissey, an ATSM standards development director.
Amazon quit selling many models of hoverboards in December and said it would give customers a full refund it they wanted one.
‘Drag racing too’
Dr. Victor Prisk, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in foot and ankle injuries at the Allegheny Health Network, said he’s seen “quite a few” foot and ankle injuries in adult riders who either step off awkwardly or are thrown from hoverboards. The most common injuries are sprained ankles or two kinds of breaks of the fifth metatarsal bone known as dancer’s fractures and Jones fractures.
“Those hoverboards seem pretty unstable,” he said. “There’s not much you can do to protect (your feet).”
While the safety commission investigates the vehicles and safety standards are established, various groups are taking steps to control the use of hoverboards.
Because of the fear of fire, Carnegie Mellon University has temporarily banned the vehicles from its dormitories, although they can be used on campus for transportation in appropriate areas. Most airlines also have banned the vehicles.
And the Carolina Panthers football team has told players to quit using them.
“Did you see those things on YouTube blowing up and stuff? That’s what concerns me more than anything else is something crazy happening,” coach Ron Rivera told The Charlotte Observer. “I caught them drag racing in the hallways one time too. You’ve got to be careful.”