What’s a Vehicle?

James Heselden, the owner of the company that makes the Segway personal transporter, died recently after driving his Segway off a cliff. It appears to have been a tragic accident, and the accounts I’ve read suggest that Heselden was an interesting person and a remarkable philanthropist. Thinking about Segways, though, reminded me that I’ve been meaning to do a post about what counts as a “vehicle” for purposes of our motor vehicle laws.

G.S. 20-4.01 defines a variety of specific types of vehicles, including all-terrain vehicles, commercial motor vehicles, and recreational vehicles, among others. But most questions concern whether a specific conveyance is a “vehicle” or a “motor vehicle.” The latter term is defined in G.S. 20-4.01(23) simply to mean “[e]very vehicle which is self-propelled” except mopeds, so litigation tends to focus on the definition of a “vehicle.” Under G.S. 20-4.01(49), a vehicle is “[e]very device in, upon, or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a highway,” including bicycles but not other human-powered devices, and generally not including mobility devices for the disabled.

Overall, then, a motor vehicle is any powered device that allows the movement of people or property upon a highway. That sounds quite broad, and our courts have generally read it accordingly. Here are a few cases on point:

  • State v. Crow, 175 N.C. App. 119 (2005) (stand-up scooter with electric motor a motor vehicle sufficient to support DWI conviction)
  • State v. Dellinger, 73 N.C. App. 685 (1985) (horse a vehicle sufficient to support DWI conviction, but note that current G.S. 20-138.1(e) excepts horses)
  • State v. Green, 251 N.C. 141 (1959) (farm tractor a vehicle sufficient to support DWI conviction)
  • Lewis v. Watson, 229 N.C. 20 (1948) (handcart, “moved solely by human power,” not a vehicle)
  • State Auto. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Hoyle, 106 N.C. App. 199 (1992) (go-kart not a motor vehicle for purposes of interpreting insurance contract)

From time to time, one reads about motor vehicle charges based upon goofy types of vehicles like a toy Barbie car, or a riding lawnmower, or even a powered armchair. And I suppose that all of those would be viewed as vehicles under North Carolina law, too. Anyone care to argue whether a powered exoskeleton like this one would count as a vehicle?

To end where we began, what about a Segway? At first blush, it seems obvious that a Segway is both a vehicle and a motor vehicle. Certainly it can carry people or property upon a highway, so it meets the basic definition of a vehicle. But could it fall within the exception for “a device which is designed for and intended to be used as a means of transportation for a person . . . who uses the device for mobility enhancement”? It seems as though Segways (and lots of other vehicles) arguably are used for “mobility enhancement.” And while the exception is limited to devices that can be used inside and outdoors, and that travel no faster than 15 miles per hour, Segway’s website says that its main model can be used “indoors or out” and is limited to 12.5 miles per hour. As it turns out, it doesn’t matter whether a Segway would fall within that exception, because it falls within a separate exception for “an electric personal assistive mobility device as defined in G.S. 20-4.01(7a).” Looking at G.S. 20-4.01(7a), it encompasses any “self-balancing nontandem two-wheeled device, designed to transport one person,” that is limited to 15 miles per hour or less. That sounds like a Segway, and in Crow, the state cited the Segway as an example of such a device. Of course, as recent events indicate, the fact that a Segway isn’t subject to the motor vehicle laws doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be careful while riding one.