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    When hoverboards catch fire, go ahead and regulate

    Even in a country that’s divided over the proper scope of government regulation, we can at least agree to crack down on toys that suddenly burst into flames. Since December, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has received dozens of reports of fires connected with self-balancing scooters, also known as hoverboards. Last week, the agency notified manufacturers, importers, and retailers that the battery-powered devices need to comply with new safety standards, lest regulators recall or seize them. No hoverboard on the market meets those standards yet, experts say.

    This was a huge setback for a product category that was suddenly ubiquitous during the 2015 holiday season. Yet the agency’s action also offers a useful guide to when a swift response from government is in order.

    In this case, there’s a demonstrable threat to consumer safety. Moreover, consumers can’t evaluate the safety of hoverboards without specialized expertise. The scooters generally use large rechargeable lithium-ion batteries made with highly flammable materials, and regulators suspect that at least some manufacturers have used iffy chargers and low-quality batteries that can be easily damaged.


    Finally, the regulators’ demand — that hoverboards sold in the United States must comply with new safety standards developed by Underwriters Laboratories, the independent testing organization — is closely tailored to the problem at hand.

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    The free market produced at least one solution to defective hoverboards: the Hovervault, a fiberglass bag designed to contain any fire that might break out while a hoverboard is charging. The safety commission’s approach may be less innovative, but it’s far more satisfying.

    As the popularity of hoverboards soared last year, they seemed doomed to encounter a far different sort of regulatory scrutiny. Authorities in New York City have classified the scooters as unregistered motor vehicles and banned them from streets and sidewalks — all but inviting complaints about a runaway nanny state bent on stamping out anything that’s fun or that falls outside hoary regulatory categories. But such controversies seem less urgent when genuine risks emerge; whatever else battery-powered scooters do, they shouldn’t spontaneously combust.

    In a complication for regulators and consumers, hoverboards come from a changing roster of companies in China that manufacture under a variety of names. Maybe you’ve seen that classic “Saturday Night Live” skit with the sleazy toy maker who sells items like “Johnny Switchblade,” “Mr. Skin Grafter,” and “Bag O’Glass”? Blame for today’s defective scooters may not be so easy to assign. That’s just one more reason regulation makes sense here — to push companies up and down the supply chain to take responsibility for the products they make and sell.

    Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/danteramos or on Twitter: @danteramos.