SF's Unsolved Mystery: Hoverboards

Hoverboards are this holiday season's hottest gift — literally. A defect in the lithium ion batteries that power the self-balancing scooters has led to reports of the devices exploding. (On Dec. 15, one caught fire inside an East Bay house.) Amazon has pulled some hoverboards from the company's virtual shelves and urged customers in some markets to trash the unsafe product and collect a refund, while major airlines have banned the devices on planes.

In New York City, police declared hoverboards illegal on streets and sidewalks, with riders subject to a $200 fine. But in San Francisco, the most troubling question isn't if hoverboards are safe but whether they're subject to the same rules of the road as bicycles, motorized skateboards, and other wheeled devices. Two recently passed laws — one state and one local — have stumped city officials.

The state law is AB-604, written by Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen (R-Modesto) and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in October. The bill requires riders of bicycles, motorized scooters, and “other mobility devices” to be 16 or older, wear a helmet, and stick to bike paths. However, the bill adds a wrinkle by allowing local agencies to adopt their own regulatory ordinances.

That's what San Francisco did Dec. 15 when the Board of Supervisors legalized the controversial “Idaho stop,” in which bicyclists may roll through stop signs without coming to a complete halt. (Mayor Ed Lee has vowed a veto.)

Asked if the Idaho stop also applies to hoverboards, the bill's sponsor, Supervisor John Avalos, declined to comment.

“I really have no idea,” said Supervisor Eric Mar, who supported the bill.

Supervisor Mark Farrell (also a supporter) was unavailable to comment, although a spokesman from his office wrote, “I don't believe [the Idaho stop] would apply [to hoverboards] — the ordinance specifically references bicycles.”

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, tasked with regulating traffic, wasn't able to clarify matters either.

“I don't have anything to say,” an SFMTA spokesman said. “I'm not being cagey, it's just that hoverboards aren't vehicles, so it'd be the cops who'd care. There are no real vehicle regulations associated with hoverboards.”

When Cmdr. Ann Mannix, the San Francisco Police Department's traffic chief, was asked if hoverboard riders would be penalized if they cruised through a stop sign, she said, “Depending on how egregious the violation, death or serious bodily injury may be the 'penalty' if the rider passes through and strikes, or is struck by, a car or strikes a pedestrian.”

So does the Idaho stop apply to hoverboards? Mannix couldn't say, noting that “further research is required.”

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which supports the Idaho stop, said that whatever the law, hoverboards should be low-priority for the SFPD. The behaviors that account for the majority of traffic deaths and injuries are when speeding cars run stop signs or red lights, fail to yield the right of way, or violate turn restrictions, they claim.

“Those should be the SFPD's top traffic enforcement policies, as they've promised and failed to deliver on for too long,” coalition spokesman Chris Cassidy said.

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