Uneasy About Riders

Our View: Popularity Of Motor Scooters Raises Questions About Their Safety

July 27, 2009

Last summer's skyrocketing gasoline prices helped fuel a surge in sales of motor scooters in this country. That's hardly surprising given that a scooter can get 95 miles per gallon, hybrid versions of the bikes claim to produce twice that result, and electric ones allow you to skip the service station entirely.

Its growing legion of fans insist the scooter is not just for dashing about Rome or Milan anymore. They are relatively cheap - often in the $1,000-$3,000 range - and it's a lot easier to find a parking space for the average Vespa than it is for an SUV. The benefits to the environment only add to their charms.

But the rise of the scooter and its cousin, the moped or motor-assisted bicycle, is raising safety concerns. Some scooters look and perform like motorcycles and are regulated as such. Riders must wear helmets to protect them from serious injury.

Yet scooters with engines of 50 cubic centimeters or less are not considered motorcycles. Under Maryland law, a rider must have a driver's license (not a specific motorcycle license) but need not register the vehicle, have insurance or wear a helmet.

This lax approach might have been understandable when scooters were a novelty, but not when tens of thousands more are hitting the roads each year. Even with only a 50-cc engine - which translates to about 2.7 horsepower - scooters can achieve speeds of 40 miles per hour on the road, making them a lot faster than the average bicycle, absent a Tour de France entrant behind the handlebars.

But at least Lance Armstrong wears a helmet. Even if small motor scooters are allowed to go unregistered, there's no excuse for not requiring riders to wear protective headgear. Bikes may be operated on separate paths, but scooters are inevitably on the road and at greater risk.

Javin Edward Hunter, a former Ravens draft pick, ran his Chrysler sedan into a scooter in Joppa, killing the 53-year-old rider in an apparent hit-and-run accident in 2007. He was sentenced to six months in jail last year. An 8-year-old Elkridge boy was killed last month when he drove a scooter into a minivan.

While Maryland does not distinguish between scooters and motorcycles in its accident records, the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems does track moped collisions, of which there were 347 in 2006-2007. MIEMSS reports that most resulted in incapacitating injuries to the moped operators.

Scooters ought not be discouraged. They can be a practical option for some commuters, and the savings in fuel and the reduction in greenhouse gases is helpful to everyone. But they need to be regulated in a responsible way, beginning with a requirement that riders under age 21 wear a helmet.

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