Sept. 27, 2010 -- In a bizarre twist, James Heselden, owner of the company that makes the two-wheeled Segway personal transporter, died Sunday morning in a Segway-related mishap -- just before the scheduled release of a study suggesting injuries related to the vehicles may be on the rise.
According to a witness report, Heselden, 62, apparently fell off a 30-foot cliff into a river while riding a Segway near his home in West Yorkshire, UK. Police found Heselden's body and a Segway personal transporter in the river. He was pronounced dead at the scene and foul play is not suspected, West Yorkshire Police told reporters.
A short statement posted on the Segway company website noted that Heselden "died in a tragic accident."
"Our thoughts go out to his family and many friends, who have asked for privacy at this time."
Meanwhile, emergency room doctors said in a study released on Monday that cases of Segway-related injuries "are significant and seem to be increasing," with inexperienced users perhaps bearing the brunt of these injuries.
Slated for publication in the Annals of Internal Medicine, authors of the new study suggest -- based on cases treated at The George Washington University Hospital Emergency Department -- that "[f]urther investigation into the risks of use, as well as the optimal length and type of training or practice, is warranted."
Matt Dailida, vice president of governmental affairs for Segway and official spokesperson for the company, said a three-component safety training regimen is recommended for all users of the personal transportation devices -- whether they are buying a Segway or are a first-time user renting one for a group tour by a Segway-authorized business.
"What I do know is that every single one of our authorized dealers and renters are meeting some very strict guidelines as to safety training," he said, noting that those participating in group tours must devote an additional 30 to 40 minutes to reading materials, a video presentation and hands-on training with a Segway.
The battery-powered, gyroscope-stabilized Segway, which speeds riders along in an upright position at up to 12.5 miles per hour, was invented by Dean Kamen, who founded the Segway company in 1999.
The number of Segway-related injuries seen at The George Washington University Hospital Emergency Department rose from just five in last nine months of 2005 to 25 in the first 11 months of 2008. More than three quarters of these patients arrived in the emergency department during the summer months, when Segway group tours around the Washington Mall were in full swing, suggesting that these inexperienced users were most likely to get hurt. Most of the cases in the study involved head injuries from the accidents.
Segway Injuries Still Rare -- But Climbing?
As of last year, according to Segway, consumers have purchased an estimated 50,000 Segways since the company unveiled the product in 2001.
Reports of deaths from Segway riders appear to be rare, including a 2004 incident in which a 59-year-old man died after falling from one of the vehicles.
And while dozens of these injuries were seen in the researchers' hospital, the majority of emergency physicians contacted by ABC News said they had never seen an injury involving a Segway in their emergency departments -- or if they had, such injuries were relatively rare.
Dr. Bobby Kapur at the Baylor College of Medicine's Section of Emergency Medicine in Houston, Texas, said he saw a few Segway-related injuries in the past when he worked at a hospital in Washington, D.C. He said he has not yet seen any similar cases in Houston. But he added that he believes better safety regulations should be adopted.
"I believe Segways should be in the same class as bicycles -- or even mopeds -- and users should be required to wear helmets," Kapur said. "People achieve speeds around 13 miles per hour, which is comparable to a medium-range speed on a bicycle."
The gyroscopic technology employed by the Segways make it less likely that a rider will fall from the machine, but doctors said such falls are still possible.
"While the Segway is a very well engineered and stable transport, one can still fall from it, and the additional height means additional force to the head," said Dr. Stephen Epstein of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
"Segways present a unique injury potential, as demonstrated by the infamous George W. Bush spill," said Dr. Ryan Stanton, director of the emergency department at the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington. "They function like a pendulum with forward and backward rotation at the axle, with rapid starts and stops resulting in a rotatory fall with the head suffering the most speed and force at impact."
The former president fell off a Segway in 2003 at his family estate in Kennebunkport, Maine. Bush was able to leap from the machine, landing uninjured on his feet.
Other ER doctors said more needs to be known before effective safety standards can be introduced.
"I am in favor of helmets in general, but I am unaware of the extent of brain injury in patients who suffer injuries while riding Segways," said Dr. Allen Walker of the Pediatric Emergency Medicine Department at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. "While it stands to reason that helmets may reduce injuries in such events, there is, to my knowledge, no data that bears on that issue.
Doctors Debate Helmet Laws for Segways
"So, in general, helmets are good; whether they would be effective in Segway injuries likely needs to be studied."
Dailida said Segway's stance on helmet use is consistent with that of the authors of the new study.
"Anybody riding a Segway should be be aware of their surroundings and wear a helmet," he said. "We would urge [the authors] to extend that recommendation to all personal transportation devices, such as bicycles, skateboards and scooters."
As for Heselden's death, Dailida said the company owner had been a Segway owner for years before he bought out the company and was aware of the device's risks and the importance of proper protective equipment.
Associated Press reports contributed to this report.