The hottest gift of the season: 7 On Your Side investigates hoverboard hazards

The hottest gift of the season: 7 on Your Side investigates hoverboard hazards. (ABC7)

Is it the hottest holiday gift ever? Or could it ruin Christmas morning?

Known generically as the "hoverboard," the electric self-balancing skateboard is the top of many wish lists. But the trouble, for some riders, is the self-balancing part.

Each of these people agreed to let 7 On Your Side share their board crashes, or "fails," as they're called on social media. Some fails are hard, some are soft, some painful, and some, apparently, are hilarious. Or at least to the guy that's holding the camera.

The boards are sold online, in sporting goods stores, and at kiosks in malls, priced between $400 to $1,500. 7 On Your Side bought a lower-end board at Modell's from a display in the front of the store with a special return policy notice stapled to the box.

"Returns will not be accepted if there are any signs of use " reads the notice.

Before you buy the board, a manager makes sure you understand the policy clearly. "If you open it, it's yours," she said. There is no other equipment in the store that gets a similar treatment.

Brandy Giddings, an athletic mother of three teenagers in Great Falls, bought her family's three hoverboards online. Her children ride daily through the neighborhood and all over the house. One of her sons puts his elbows on their most powerful board as it drags him around on the floor.

"I wish I'd ridden it that way," said Giddings.

Seven weeks ago she was operating the $1,500 dollar board outside, up a slight hill, next to her husband. She said it felt natural to step off the front, but that action pirouetted her around so fast, she tore the ligaments in her left ankle.

"It almost runs you over if you step off the front so that's a really dangerous way to do it," said Giddings. She believes there needs to be better information included with the boards to teach you how to ride them safely.

The user manual for one brand of hoverboard warns users about the risk of injury and even death. The warnings on page 3 say, in part, "No matter when and where, there is a possibility you may crash, fall off, lose control, etc., causing injury and even death," and "the likelihood of injury or death will increase if you don't follow the proper operating instructions in this manual."

In the last three months, the Consumer Product Safety Commission received just eight reports of ER treated injuries. But as the popularity of the boards jumps, so will visits to hospitals, clinics, and doctors' offices, said Dr. Peter MacArthur, an Inova physician based in Ballston.

"Ankle injuries, tailbone and back, bruises and abrasions," said Dr. MacArthur, listing the possible injuries from board falls. "Or the most dreaded would be a concussion or head injury, especially with kids not wearing helmets."

Twelve-year-old riders Jack Evans and Will Bernhardt ride their hoverboards with ease and without helmets on the streets of Arlington.

"The main risk is it makes you lazy," said Jack, who likes to ride his board everywhere, even from the couch to the kitchen and back.

"I did fall once," said Will. He hit a speed bump at a high speed and landed face-first on the pavement.

"That hurt," he admitted.

A 13-year-old girl showed 7 On Your Side her triple fracture in her left arm.

"Don't tell my parents," she pleaded. "Or they'll take my hoverboard away."

7 On Your Side shopped undercover for a hoverboard at a local mall where the salesman promised we would always fall on our feet. When we mentioned the "fails" posted online, he conceded that proper training is essential. From someone like him. After you buy it.

"Do you think it's dangerous?" 7 On Your Side asked.

"Like any other thing, yeah," he said. "You can't just buy motorcycle and drive, it's dangerous. Yeah."

7 On Your Side convinced him to give us a tutorial on the board, even though we didn't end up buying it. We had to move to the mall parking lot, because allowing customers to test the board inside the mall is considered a liability. He spent a good 10 minutes with us, making sure we didn't fall, and giving great tips about getting on and off the board.

Dr. MacArthur himself fell the first time he tried out the board.

"They have a tendency to shoot out from under you if you're not balanced, so that can be dangerous just because they're self-powered."

In other words, they can create an element of surprise, in the same way that a sheet of ice can catch you off-guard. This 7 On Your Side reporter experienced such a fall, landing on her back and banging her head against a wall, which is the primary reason she only enjoys her hoverboard with a helmet.

Another potential problem, hoverboards are catching fire due to charging problems, according to a handful of reports from London, where it is illegal to ride the boards in public. New York City banned the boards in the last 24 hours, and police cautioned they would write $500 dollar tickets for violations.

Yet again, the user manual for one hoverboard warns, "Over-worked lithium batteries can explode. Excessive discharge due to modification (over-volting) is dangerous."

Our 12-year-old expert riders believe falls frequently happen when, like with anything on two wheels, you are first learning to ride.

"I'd be more upset about a broken board than a broken arm," said Will.

They also think injuries are more likely if you're old.

"Like over 20," said Jack.

Indeed, under the "Safe Driving" section of the user manual it reads, "Children, the elderly, and pregnant women should not drive" the board.

7 On Your Side sent three emails and made one call to Swagway, the manufacturer of the hoverboard we purchased. Our questions, and Swagway's Marketing Manager Nick Villalobos' paraphrased answers, are found below:

7OYS: If the Swagway should not be operated by children, what age group is most appropriate? Whom do you market to?

Swagway: We recommend that people 12 and up, with a minimum weight of 40 pounds, operate the Swagway. We started off as an eco, energy efficient way to travel, but its popularity has been all over. We see kids ride for school, recreation, and even older people as a way to get around.

7OYS: What can consumers do to protect themselves from injury?

Swagway: People need to read the manual, use it properly, and wear protective gear like a helmet. We also recommend they properly calibrate the board.

7OYS: Do you have any statistics you are willing to share regarding falls, injuries, or deaths connected to use of your product? Have public reports of injuries slowed or fueled your sales growth?

Swagway: We haven't received any complaints or word about injuries from our customers, and I would hear them if we had them. We started with two factories four months ago, now we've expanded to four factories and are looking at five.

7OYS: Your user manual warns of death or injury 25 times. Is your product dangerous?

Swagway: No, it's not dangerous. All of those disclaimers are what our legal team came up with. Even the Segway has an insane number of disclaimers; you feel like you are signing your life away. As for the risk of fire with batteries, that's more likely with knock-offs which use low quality parts, and that's dangerous. If you buy a knock-off you risk getting hurt. We use LG Samsung batteries and they are top of the line. I recommend consumers to go with a quality brand.

7OYS: What's your response to New York City's ban?

Swagway: We still don't understand the ban. We're just like a bike. And I'm sure you've heard all the news about New York. You (7 On Your Side) are the only media we responded to. Some people in our company think we should say "no comment," but there is nothing wrong with our product and we want people to know.

(7 On Your Side reached out to Swagway five days before the ban was announced).

7OYS: Do you see any benefit to the videos of hoverboard crashes posted online?

Swagway: We don't see a benefit to publicity about the falls. We try to promote safety, not people getting hurt. We promote people doing cool things with them like ballerinas, dance crews, but getting hurt is not our thing.

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