News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

October 13, 2013

Mopeds: Safety, legality pose risks

Lack of clarity in state law makes sharing the road a juggling act between patience, law, convenience

TERRE HAUTE — Scooters.

Sometimes it seems like they’re everywhere. Zipping around town, serving as a fuel efficient way to get to work or to cruise around, but they’re often slowing down traffic and creating a possible hazard.

Terre Haute — like many Hoosier cities, as well as communities around the country — has a seeming abundance of scooters on the city streets.

And like many cities, a local ordinance has been enacted to regulate the types of scooters permitted.

What is it?

Some people might wonder if enough is being done on the state level to regulate the safe usage of scooters on Hoosier roadways.

But it is a complicated issue, compounded not only by terminology and technicalities — is it a motorized bike, a scooter, a moped or a motorcycle — but also by local ordinances passed by communities to make the streets safer for everyone.

A scooter is actually a motorized, two-wheeled vehicle with a floor pad for the driver’s feet and a pass-through chassis.

The scooters often have the unkind nickname of “Licker-sickle” or “DUI bike” because of the popular belief that a majority of people riding them have lost their driver’s license due to drunken driving. And indeed, mopeds and scooters have become a popular mode of transportation for those without a valid license, for whatever reason.

But if a person has lost his or her driving privileges due to drunken driving, isn’t it reasonable to also prohibit that person from driving a moped or scooter on a public right-of-way?

That’s not the way it is in Indiana. Anyone age 15 and older with a valid state-issued identification card can ride a scooter on a public road, if additional criteria is also met.

Who should be allowed to ride a scooter or moped on a public road is one of the many questions Indiana legislators will be debating next year when legislation is again introduced to clean up Indiana’s laws about mopeds, motorcycles, scooters and “licker-sickles.”

Easy rider

John Rhoades has never had a driver’s license and depends on his Honda Elite to get around the city, while avoiding the main streets.

“I take the back way everywhere I go,” Rhoades said recently upon arriving at his home riding his scooter. “I don’t get on the highway unless I have to.”

His Honda meets the city’s ordinance — its engine capacity is less than 50cc with a top speed of 25 miles per hour — and the 33-year-old Terre Haute man has registered his vehicle with the city police department. He also has a valid state-issued identification card.

Rhoades said that he purchased the scooter about a year ago from Thompson’s Motorsports, because two other cheaper vehicles he had purchased “were junk.”

He said he prefers traveling by scooter, and by paying attention to traffic, he doesn’t often have bad experiences with bigger, faster vehicles.

“On this, I feel like I have more control than in a car,” Rhoades said of the easy maneuverability of the scooter.

When winter comes, Rhoades said he plans to dress warmer to get where he’s going.

Likewise, local resident Josh Cooper said he depends on his moped to get around.

Cooper told the Tribune-Star that he is a disabled veteran with a seizure disorder. He does not have a driver’s license, so he depends on the scooter for transportation during good weather. In cold or hazardous weather, he said, he calls Catholic Charities of Terre Haute, where he volunteers, and someone arranges a ride for him.

“Even in the rain, it can be treacherous,” Cooper said, adding that he plans to store the scooter in cold weather rather than ride it.

He was spotted riding south on 13th Street near Poplar Street recently, and he stopped to talk about his scooter and why he chose the one he rides.

Cooper said he knows about the local scooter ordinance, so he made sure to buy one that is less than 50cc. He purchased the scooter from a friend who was moving to Florida, he said, and the friend had already purchased this year’s $25 registration tag.

“It’s definitely gas efficient,” Cooper said of the moped. “I’ve driven it 1,015 miles since I bought it, and I’ve only put $55 in gas in it.”

Staying on side streets is essential, he said, as is staying to the right, so that impatient traffic can safely pass him.

It’s a pain

Not all scooter riders are as considerate of traffic as Rhoades and Cooper, however.

Sgt. Steve Lewis of the Traffic Division at the Terre Haute Police Department said people often complain of reckless scooter drivers, but it’s hard for police to track them down.

“They’re just a pain in the butt,” Lewis said of the scooter community.

The local ordinance came about in part due to the number of scooters and mopeds that were reported stolen in the city, he said. Since the vehicles are not plated through the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and many people do not register their Vehicle Identification Numbers, it can be hard to determine who is the real owner of a moped or scooter.

The abundance of scooters interfering with regular traffic flow was also a problem, Lewis said. Not to mention that local criminals often used the scooters as throw-away vehicles because an abandoned scooter could not be traced to an owner, and it is relatively easy to steal another scooter.

While acknowledging that some people do follow the local ordinance and are safe motorists, Lewis said that too many cause problems in traffic.

The Terre Haute City Council passed its scooter ordinance in June 2011, and it went into effect in October 2011.

Enforced by the THPD, which also issues registration stickers, the ordinance is seen by some as a benefit, and by others as just more bureaucracy.

The ordinance states that in addition to traveling less than 25 miles per hour, all drivers in the city are required to:

• Be age 15 or older, and have in their possession a valid form of identification issued by the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles. That can be either an identification card or a driver’s license.

• Wear a helmet if age 15, 16 or 17.

• Not carry passengers.

• Follow all traffic laws and obey all stop signs and traffic signals.

• Have operable tail and brake lights, a head lamp, and brakes.

When the ordinance went into effect in late 2011, many people quickly complied by paying their initial $25 registration fee and getting an inspection at THPD.

“We registered about 700 scooters last year,” said Kelli Kennedy, secretary in the Traffic Division. “This year, only 472 are registered.”

Many people do not realize that the stickers apply to a calendar year — January to December — no matter what part of the year in which the sticker is purchased. So, each new year the stickers must be renewed at a cost of $10. The 2014 stickers are due to arrive in November, Kennedy said, so people can register or renew a little early if they want.

Lewis said that police officers will stop moped and scooter riders who are unsafe in traffic, or who have a passenger, since that is prohibited by the local law.

Also, children younger than 15 are not allowed to ride any motorized vehicle on city streets.

It used to be a concern that adults could ride around with a child passenger on the scooter, Lewis said. Prior to enactment of the local ordinance, a child passenger was allowed if the child was wearing an appropriate helmet. But that is no longer the case in Terre Haute.

State effort

After three legislative sessions in the Indiana Statehouse where new scooter legislation was introduced, but did not pass, legislators are expecting more proposals to be introduced in 2014.

Rep. Milo Smith (R-Columbus) has presented moped legislation that has passed the Indiana House but died in the Senate, and he said he intends to continue trying to make Indiana roads safer for all motorists.

 “The current law allows people to drive mopeds on the road without a license, registration or insurance,” he said. “There should be accountability.”

Smith said he wants people to take a driving test through the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, register their vehicles and get a license plate, as well as ride as far to the right as possible in the right-hand lane.

“There needs to be some accountability so that if someone is driving recklessly, it can be reported by calling in their plate number,” he said.

The state regulations have inconsistencies, he said, and he wants the BMV to get away from citing federal standards when determining what engine size and vehicle specifications determines if a one is considered a moped, scooter or motorcycle.

There is some disagreement in the BMV about the definition of a motorcycle when it comes to engine sizes larger than 50cc.

Josh Gillespie, deputy commissioner of communications for the Indiana BMV, told the Tribune-Star that “It’s only considered a motorcycle if it meets the federal safety standards for a motorcycle. Otherwise, it falls into a gray area that we can’t do anything with. This is an issue that we will be working with the legislature to resolve.”

That position, however, is disputed by motorcycle advocates.

A weak law

Jay Jackson, executive director of ABATE of Indiana, said that if overseas manufacturers of mopeds meet the federal requirements that allow the vehicles to be imported into the U.S., the vehicles should then meet the federal definitions that determine if it is a moped or a motorcycle.

“Indiana’s statute is weak,” said Jackson, who was one of the organizers of a “Scooter Summit” at Indianapolis in September to talk about the problems with Indiana’s laws related to mopeds and how to make improvements.

Several state legislators and police agencies were at the summit to talk about the factors that have led to enforcement confusion as well as crashes by moped enthusiasts.

“The rising number of fatalities and property damage crashes point to the need for some attention to these vehicles,” Jackson said.

But handling it at the local level is not a good solution, he asserted, because there is no consistency from one jurisdiction to the next. What might be legal in Terre Haute may not be what is legal in another city or county, and that leaves the scooter rider unclear about the rules of whatever local jurisdiction the scooter rider is in at the time.

Most local laws also do not address insurance.

Jackson noted that most scooter riders he has encountered do not have insurance because it is not required by the state, as it is with other motor vehicles. However, if a moped rider causes an accident with another vehicle, it will be the other motorist who must make a claim on his own insurance if a repair is needed.

“Insurance has been a real stumbling block” in past legislation, Jackson said.

Fatalities add up

According to the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, which tracks statistics submitted by law enforcement agencies, the number of moped driver and passenger fatalities has been increasing.

In 2008, Indiana had only 16 fatalities reported. By 2011, that number had grown to 22, and in 2012, there were 24 fatalities reported. From 2008 to 2012, Indiana had 88 total fatalities among moped drivers and their passengers. The majority of those were in the age range of 40 to 59. There was no statistical breakdown available on whether alcohol consumption was a contributing factor in the crash.

The number of incapacitating injuries has also been growing. An incapacitating injury has been defined as any injury other than fatal that prevents the injured person from walking, driving or normally continuing the activities the person was capable of performing before the injury occurred.

Dress for the crash

Compounding the issue of which mopeds are permitted on city streets are the sales lots that dot the city-scape. A visit to one local lot revealed that almost all of the motorcycles were 150cc, which according to city ordinance, makes them illegal to ride in Terre Haute.

The manager of the sales lot, who declined to be interviewed, did say that he did not warn people that the mopeds were not considered street legal in Terre Haute. That issue is up to the buyers to know, he said.

Meanwhile, at Thompson’s Motorsports on the city’s south side, vice president Chad Thompson said the confusion about the state law and local ordinance can be frustrating for the moped riders and to vehicle dealers.

“We want to educate people and we want people to be safe and legal,” Thompson said, pointing out which mopeds in his showroom meet the city ordinance, and which do not.

“If you’re going too fast, it’s a big clue that your moped is not legal,” he said of the public confusion on whether a moped rider is obeying the local law or not.

Sound is also a nationwide issue that vehicle dealers often discuss, Thompson said, along with scooter laws, rider and passenger safety, and education.

“We tell people to dress for the crash, not the ride,” he said.

Unfortunately, whenever a moped rider has a crash with a larger vehicle, it is usually the moped driver who will come away with the injuries.

Rep. Smith said many crashes occur because the moped riders do not know the rules of the road.

And how can they, if they do not have to take any kind of licensing test to show proficiency in riding skills or knowledge of traffic signals, signs and etiquette, he asked.

Smith said that the Indiana Supreme Court has challenged the legislature to clean up its moped and motorcycle laws after hearing a confusing case in which a moped rider challenged his conviction for driving while suspended. The man’s moped was going faster than 25 mph at the time he was stopped by police, who declared that he was riding a motorcycle and, therefore, was not supposed to be driving. The man claimed that he did not need a license to operated a “motorized bicycle.”

Smith said that if the legislature will clean up the state law, each community in Indiana will not have to enact its own ordinance in order to make the roads safer for the motoring public.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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