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Segway owner dies after fall from vehicle

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LONDON » All police found at the bottom of a cliff was a man’s body in a frigid river and a Segway, the two-wheeled electric device that was supposed to revolutionize personal transport.

It was Jimi Heselden, a one-time laid-off coal miner turned self-made millionaire who had bought the Segway company only 10 months earlier. He apparently fell to his death while riding one of the sleek black-and-silver scooters. Authorities said yesterday his body was found in the River Wharfe at the base of a 30-foot cliff.

Details remained sketchy — police say only that the death was not suspicious, meaning foul play is not suspected — but the incident seems certain to raise fresh questions about the safety of the Segway, which is banned on British motorways and in some U.S. cities because of safety concerns.

A witness reported seeing a man fall Sunday over a 30-foot drop into the river near the village of Boston Spa, 140 miles north of London. The remote, heavily forested area not far from Heselden’s country estate is popular with hikers.

A family spokesman released a statement saying the "exact circumstances of the accident are still being clarified and will, of course, be the subject of an inquest."

The family "has been left devastated by the sudden and tragic loss of a much-loved father and husband," the spokesman said.

Somber family members visited the accident site yesterday — placing wreaths — but they asked for privacy.

Heselden, a high school dropout who went on to make a fortune developing a blast wall system used to protect troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, never abandoned his gritty roots. He used his money to help people in the working-class area around Leeds where he grew up, earning folk hero status there.

The 62-year-old Heselden had bought control of the Bedford, N.H.-based Segway in December.

The company’s unique two-wheeler was introduced with much fanfare in 1999 by its American founder, Dean Kamen, as a means of transport that was more protective of the environment than other scooters and automobiles. The company claims the Segway is 11 times more efficient than the average American car. It can be used indoors because it has no emissions, making it popular with some police departments and private security firms, who use it to patrol indoor malls.

But it has also been linked to some high-profile mishaps.

President George W. Bush famously tried one out in 2003 at his family’s estate in Maine, but the machine toppled over when he tried to get on it. Celebrity journalist Piers Morgan also took a tumble on one — the video can be seen on YouTube, along with dozens of other Segway mishaps.

Heselden’s death prompted new questions about the safety record of the battery-powered Segway, which is stabilized by gyroscopes and can travel at speeds up to 12.5 mph.

The company recalled all its U.S. vehicles in 2006 because of a software problem that could make its wheels reverse direction, causing riders to fall off.

New Jersey lawyer Samuel Davis said he has represented about a dozen people hurt while riding Segways, including some who suffered serious injuries.

"The problem is the vehicles are just not that stable," he said. "You have to get used to leaning away from the turn. If you lean into it, you’ll turn over. They don’t do well on gravel or surfaces where there is a stone or a bump. It’s difficult to control."

 

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