State Motor Vehicle Laws
Treatment of Electric Personal Assistive Mobility Devices (EPAMDs)
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s responsibility for setting vehicle safety standards and mandating the national system of vehicle identification numbers is limited to “motor vehicles” as defined in 49 U.S.C. § 30102(a)(7). A critical phrase in that definition confines the category to vehicles “manufactured primarily for use on public streets, roads, and highways.” The agency does not set standards for power mowers, construction equipment, or off-road recreational vehicles. The Segway’s inventor, Dean Kamen, envisioned his powered two-wheeled platform being used in pedestrian space alongside motorized wheelchairs, including the gyro-stabilized wheelchair from which the Segway was derived. Early in 2001, the company’s law firm secured an advisory opinion from NHTSA’s chief counsel. It agreed with the firm’s conclusion that the Segway was not a “motor vehicle” subject to the agency’s regulatory authority. That interpretation rested on the location of Segway’s intended use (sidewalks, not the roadway), its limited speed (“less than 20 mph”), and its unusual configuration.
Building on its federal regulatory success, the Segway team launched a nationwide lobbying campaign targeting state vehicle codes. There, a critical challenge for the company arose from the comprehensive definitions of “vehicle” and “motor vehicle” found in the laws of all fifty states. It was common to define a “vehicle” as “[e]very device in, upon or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a highway, excepting devices used exclusively upon stationary rails or tracks.” and a “motor vehicle” as “[e]very vehicle which is self-propelled, and every vehicle which is propelled by electric power obtained from overhead trolley wires but not operated upon rails, except vehicles moved solely by human power and motorized wheelchairs.”
For a company that wanted to sell Segways for use on public sidewalks and roadways, the breadth of those definitions posed two problems. First, the typical state statute banned “motor vehicles” or even all “vehicles” not moved “exclusively by human power” (motorized wheelchairs excepted) from public sidewalks. Second, the types of motor vehicles that could be driven on public roadways were, typically, subject to registration, driver’s license, and insurance requirements. The vehicle code amendment proposed by the Segway team sought to shield the invention from all the above restrictions, employing the very method some states used with powered wheelchairs. Their proposed legislative text excluded the Segway quite specifically from the statutory “motor vehicle” definition. While the name it gave the proposed excluded category, “electric personal assistive mobility device” (EPAMD) encouraged association with that established one, the definition was not limited to use by disabled persons. Ultimately, forty-five states plus the District of Columbia amended their traffic laws to remove EPAMDs from their statutory definitions of “motor vehicle..”
Some did so directly; others accomplished the same result through the underlying definition of “vehicle.” Concern about use on roadways with heavy traffic did prompt a number to attach restrictions on where EPAMDs could be ridden and on a rider’s age. In most cases the statutory changes allowed Segways onto sidewalks, sometimes with the proviso that their riders yield the right-of-way to pedestrians. The Segway motor vehicle carve-out, the critical definition of “electric personal assistive mobility device,” was tightly drawn. While there were slight variations from state to state in other details, to qualify as an EPAMD a device had to have “two non-tandem wheels” and be “self-balancing.” The requirements had one clear purpose and effect, to limit the exception to this singular patent-protected product, while keeping other electrically powered personal mobility devices, importantly electric bicycles and electric scooters, within state “motor vehicle” statutory definitions. (Although the original Segway had a handlebar, that was not a component of the EPAMD definition. This had the unforeseen consequence, over a decade later, of allowing the popular consumer product colloquially known as a hoverboard to qualify. As a consequence, hoverboards had a clear legal path onto the sidewalks of most states.)
Federal Highway Safety Regulation and Micromobility Devices
Pursuant the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, a federal agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has, for over half a century, set safety standards for most new motor vehicles sold in or imported into the U.S. (That authority is now codified at 49 U.S.C. § 30111, and NHTSA's standards are set forth in 49 C.F.R. Part 571.) In 1981 NHTSA also standardized the previously haphazard system of assigning unique identification numbers to motor vehicles sold in the U.S. (See 49 C.F.R. §§ 565.1 – 565.16.)
NHTSA does have standards potentially applicable to some micromobility devices, namely those governing low speed motorcycles - "motor-driven cycles" to use the agency's terminology. (See 49 C.F.R. § 571.3.) But in a series of steps, NHTSA has withdrawn or been removed from regulating most, if not all, contemporary forms of low speed powered personal mobility devices on the ground that they are not "motor vehicles" covered by the agency's statutory mandate.
As defined in 49 U.S.C. § 30102(a)(7), a "motor vehicle" is "a vehicle driven or drawn by mechanical power and manufactured primarily for use on public streets, roads, and highways." The concluding phrase is critical. The agency does not set standards for power mowers, construction equipment, or off-road recreational vehicles. An agency interpretation, issued in 1969, (34 Fed. Reg. 15416) concluded that powered “mini-bikes” were not “motor vehicles.” That interpretation set out a multi-factor test. By its terms neither the manufacturer’s intent that mini-bikes be used off-road nor the fact that they possessed the operational capability of being ridden on public thoroughfares was determinative. So long as the "mini-bikes" failed to meet the requirements of nearly all states for lawful operation on “public streets, roads, and highways” and were not, in fact, being operated on them in significant numbers, NHTSA did not view them as subject to its authority. Subsequent, advisory opinions concerning motorized kick scooters qualified the second factor, taking the position that even if such vehicles “regularly use the public roads” they would “not be considered 'motor vehicles' if [they] have a maximum attainable speed of 20 miles per hour (mph) or less and an abnormal configuration which readily distinguishes them from other vehicles.” [1995 NHTSA letter.] Subsequent, advisory opinions concerning motorized kick scooters qualified the second factor, taking the position that even if such vehicles “regularly use the public roads” they would “not be considered 'motor vehicles' if [they] have a maximum attainable speed of 20 miles per hour (mph) or less and an abnormal configuration which readily distinguishes them from other vehicles.” [2003 NHTSA letter.] Adding a seat created a problem, however: "[A seat makes the scooter] indistinguishable from a moped, which is an on-street vehicle that we have long interpreted as a motor vehicle." [1995 NHTSA letter.]