Lift scooter ban

August 23, 2002

THE BALTIMORE CITY Council should be able to grasp the distinction between dirt-bike hooliganism and people riding minibikes for legitimate purposes. That's why Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. is right to try to amend a 2-year-old law that lumped dirt bikes, mopeds and scooters together - and banned them all.

It's easy to understand why the politicians got confused. Legal definitions are so difficult to craft that the City Code, after trying to define a motorized cycle that is equipped with a small engine, adds: " `Minibike' does not include a farm tractor." (Neither does it include a motorized skateboard with handlebars, which also goes by the name of scooter, and which has been banned from sidewalks and public roads in many other jurisdictions.)

Here's the difference, though. Scooters refer to the modern adaptations of the Vespa, the Italian wonder that was immortalized in Roman Holiday, the 1953 film depicting the romance between a princess (Audrey Hepburn) and an American reporter (Gregory Peck). Half a century later, the nifty light motorcycles are back in vogue. No wonder. They are cheap to operate, agile to navigate and easy to park in congested cities.

That's different from the dirt bikes some thugs ride, zipping down streets at high speeds and without regard to any traffic laws. They are a clear nuisance - and a danger to other drivers and pedestrians.

Even though scooters are technically illegal in Baltimore, a fair number can be seen on public streets. Occasionally, riders also violate traffic laws (and some use the vehicles in drug transactions), but most riders follow the rules and many wear helmets.

Banning motorized scooters makes about as much sense as banning 10-speed bikes. The smarter course would be to regulate them and subject them to normal traffic enforcement.

Under the state law, the operator of a scooter or moped must have a valid driver's license. No tags or insurance are required, although the latter is recommended.

If the light motorcycles are legalized in Baltimore, the D'Adamo bill would require owners to register them with the city transportation department. The city, in other words, would tag them and collect a fee. Another sensible condition would be to mandate the use of protective helmets.

Many police officers view all minibikes as a nuisance, because riders can outfox police by escaping down alleys or through woods. But a blanket ban on minibikes has done little to rein in the hooligans on the streets; enforcement is no easier.

The ban, meanwhile, has done something truly detrimental: It has prevented law-abiding citizens from taking advantage of sensible alternatives to cars, that would be ideal for commuters living close to downtown.

The sooner the City Council removes the shortsighted prohibition on scooters, the better.

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