REGULATING MOPEDS’ IN NORTH CAROLINA
WRITTEN BY ALEJANDRO ALFONSO PHOTOS BY BRITT CHESTER
Mopeds and scooters have carved out a comfortable niche on the shoulders of North Carolina’s roads and highways. North Carolina is still one of six states where anyone over 16 years old can drive a scooter or moped without a driver’s license, without registering with the Department of Motor Vehicles, without license plates or insurance — as long as the engine is not larger than 50 cubic centimeters and they stay under 30 miles per hour and wear a helmet.
The economic advantages of driving a twowheel small-engine cycle, as opposed to a full-size car or truck, are numerous. Not only do scooter and moped drivers avoid registration fees and insurance, they can travel up to 90 miles on a single gallon of gas. Another group of drivers who have taken advantage of scooter laws have lost their driving privileges after getting caught driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The legal-driving limbo in which these vehicles exist creates the perception criminals are using scooters to continue their criminal behavior. This view has given mopeds and scooters the derisive moniker Liquor Cycle (pronounced Licker Sickle.)
But, the free ride is coming to an end. The negative perception of so-called Liquor Cycles and recent studies of moped and scooter accidents provided state politicians with the impetus to change the rules for operating these cycles on public streets. Last year the state legislature voted to require vehicle registration and license plates for moped and scooter drivers. The new law, House Bill 1145, takes effect on July 1. The state senate voted last Tuesday to add an insurance requirement as well, House Bill 148, which awaits the signature of Governor Pat McCrory, would take effect in July 2016. And more changes could be on the way if the legislature decides to act on all recommendations made earlier this year by the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
Moped enthusiasts, and proponents of the current statutes, claim the changes in law amount to a money grab by revenue-hungry politicians targeting disadvantaged and poor populations. Sponsors of the new rules counter the changes will make drivers more accountable for their actions and create safer streets.
In February 2014, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Anna N. Miller presented a study to the Annual Scientific Meeting of the Southeastern Surgical Congress titled, “Mopeds without a license: A significant public safety risk.”
“We believe that mopeds serve as a mode of transport for those who are driving without a license and who may have a history of prior highrisk behavior,” wrote Dr. Miller, lead study author and a surgeon at Wake Forest School of Medicine, Winston-Salem. “The use of these vehicles without a license likely presents a risk to public safety” “At a Level I trauma center, we queried the trauma registry from January 2005 to October 2010 for admissions after motorcycle or moped collisions. Of the patients identified from our state, 249 had moped collisions and 730 had motorcycle collisions.
Forty-nine per cent (121) of moped drivers had a history of DWI versus only 8 per cent (56) of motorcycle drivers. Sixty-four per cent (161) of moped drivers were previously convicted of a crime versus 20 per cent (146) of those on motorcycles. Moped drivers were significantly more likely to have a prior conviction of DWI as well as prior convictions of other crimes, establishing a pattern of disregard for the law. The use of these vehicles without a license likely presents a risk to public safety. Legislation to require licensing before moped operation should be considered.”
Kenneth Joseph, 32, of Greensboro, is an example of the moped driver in Dr. Miller’s study. Four years earlier Joseph was convicted of DUI and his right to drive a car was suspended. But, unlike the drivers in Dr. Miller’s study, Joseph never ended up in the emergency room. The use of the moped doesn’t signal a disregard for the law, but a willingness to adhere to it, Joseph argues.
“I lost my license. I sold my car. And, I still had to get back and forth to work. I had to see my son and all that, so I got a scooter,” he said. “Taxi, first of all, would be way too expensive; public transportation, I had just moved to Greensboro, I wasn’t that familiar with it and the convenience aspect as well. Like, OK, I can go anywhere I need to go, as long as you don’t go on the highway, I can go anywhere I need to go on a scooter. That’s the way I need to go.”
Joseph, divorced with a young son, found a scooter on craigslist for $500. For a year, Joseph rode the scooter to a job in Haw River from his home in Greensboro, an hour-and-a-half commute each way. Joseph describes battling the elements, road rage, and mechanical problems to keep up with his financial obligations.
“I got ran off the road twice. I still have a scar on my knee,” he said. “One time, I was coming back on 70 about 8 o’clock at night, I think they were messing with me because I heard the horn beeping, so I run off the road, I’m going 35 mph, they go past me and I go to get back on. You know how the concrete has a little lip there? So, I hit the lip – bam! – skidded across the road like 20 feet.
“They get right behind you. They don’t care. I’m only on this thing because I have to be. I do not want to be on this thing. Believe me, I’m going as fast as I can. They get behind you, beeping the horn, it’s uncomfortable,” Joseph said. “I understand you have to be on the road. I have to be on the road too. I still pay taxes at the end of the day. On my paycheck, I see the taxes come out. I pay for the road too, I should be able to be on it.”
The “Licker Sickle” stigma followed Joseph as well.
He would park the scooter away from the home where he would visit his son to avoid embarrassing questions. ”I lost control of being a dad,” he said. Although it made his life more difficult, the scooter was also his lifeline.
“It was also a lifeline to help me get to see him, to help me get to work. And I still paid child support with my own job, lived on my own without roommates, without help from the outside,” Joseph said.
“I put myself in this position, to have this scooter, and I feel like I paid my time,” he said. “I have friends that lost their licenses, and just drove a car, drove for three years without a license. Well, I didn’t want to do my thing illegally. I’ve already messed up. I don’t want to keep messing up.”
After the initial $500 investment into the scooter, Joseph estimates he funneled another $1400 into parts and labor to keep it on the road. He could not afford a car when he became eligible to reinstate his driver’s license. On the advice of his scooter mechanic, Joseph decided to upgrade his scooter to a Honda Ruckus, a better built, more reliable cycle.
He paid $700 to an acquaintance for the used Ruckus. For the next 18 months, Joseph rode the Ruckus from Greensboro to Haw River, around 40 miles one way, spending $9 a week to fill up the gas tank, and put 12,000 miles on the odometer. During that time, Joseph never had another problem and eventually saved enough money to buy a car, “I cherish every moment I get in that car,” he said.
The Scooter Garage is a converted single-car garage that lies under the umbrella shade of a large oak tree between two residential homes along Highway 70 near the town of Haw River. Dozens of scooters and mopeds of various makes and models line the front of the building next to the open garage door. Scooter mechanic and tuner Joshua Alleman, 33, began his business seven years ago with a special-use permit from the town of Haw River.
Alleman honed his craft performing repairs at a high-volume scooter dealer who sold Vespa, Kymco, Piaggio and other brands. Commuting to Greensboro in a Honda Civic, spending $60 to $80 a week in gas, pushed him onto a scooter. The switch added more time to his commute but cut his gasoline bill down to $15 a week, “I loved it,” he said. Alleman would skew the percentages of Dr. Miller’s study, a moped and scooter enthusiast, he visibly recoils at the Licker Sickle label.
“I don’t like the stereotype.” Alleman challenges the notion most scooter riders in North Carolina are DWI recidivists. The Scooter Garage does brisk business. In the last five years, Alleman built a reputation as an honest dealer. He’s the mechanic Joseph gave $1,400 keeping his first scooter in working order. But Alleman believes only a small percentage of his customers are trying to circumvent DWI laws, 1 percenters so to speak. Alleman plans to open his own scooter dealership in Haw River in 2017.
“I’m someone who is passionate and likes to cater to like-minded people,” he said.
Alleman does not have a problem with the registration requirement. He thinks the new requirement will force many outlaw scooter riders to sell cycles with engines larger than 50 cc. Right now, without registration, unless you actually measure the engine, it is difficult for law enforcement or the lay person to tell the difference between a 50 cc engine and 150 cc engine, which under the law must be registered as a motorcycle, he said.
But Alleman disagrees with insurance or license requirements calling it a tax on the poor, who use scooters to avoid burdensome fuel bills, “people with very low income is who I worry about.”
Moped registration in most counties will be $18.
Some counties added a local fee; in Randolph county registration will cost $19; in Wake County $23; and in Orange and Durham counties $33. If Governor McCory signs the insurance requirement into law, it could add as much as $300, depending on driving record, to a scooter rider’s yearly expense.
The NCDOT made a power point presentation to the legislature in January. The DOT presented statistics concerning moped crashes and fatalities making recommendations for enforcement and safe operation.
If all of the DOT’s recommendations are accepted it would bring North Carolina in line with the majority of states that have extensive moped laws:
Moped operators will be required to have a driver’s license or DMV issued ID card.
Operators with revoked, suspended or denied license due to a DUI/DWI or for medical reasons shall not operate a moped.
Application for registration DMV should only issue registration card when the following criteria is met: Affidavit of Facts, DMV issued DL or ID card, Proof of Liability Insurance (if required).
DMV recommends titling mopeds if insured. Operators must be required to carry liability insurance.
Mopeds will not be operated on public roadways with posted speed limits of 45 mph or greater.
So far, the legislature has only acted on the insurance and registration requirements. The presentation looked at moped crash statistics categorizing them by county and circumstance. The DOT did confess to limitations within their data reporting:
High Levels of Under-reporting. Crashes involving a single moped are not currently captured or reported in data systems.
Data reporting is sporadic and inconsistent (Dramatic year to year changes in reporting in some counties) Local policies may be impacting reporting of data. General lack of clarity in how to report or classify these events.
Law enforcement pushed for new insurance requirements citing property damage from moped accidents which leave the owners liable for the expense because the moped driver is not accountable.
“They (moped drivers) are getting injured and causing property damage… it turns into a mess. They’re unlicensed drivers,” said Officer J.B. Price of Greensboro Police Traffic Safety Unit.
Winston Salem is home to a tight-knit community of moped riders that see themselves as an underserved and marginalized group. These are the people who love working on and riding mopeds. Jerry Cooper, 36, rides a custom moped that is great on gas but confuses law enforcement. Cooper admits to having a laissezfaire attitude when it comes to traffic laws.
“When I get stopped it’s definitely longer than the routine,” he said. “They (Police) will keep me there for 45 minutes, asking me all kinds of questions, trying to trick me into incriminating myself. None of them know what they are looking at. My friend builds them custom. They’re really fun to ride.”
Justin Ackers, 24, of Winston Salem, rides a Tomos Sprint moped he bought from a friend who works on custom mopeds. He rides for fun. But recently was caught by police driving under the influence. As he awaits his court date, he can recover his driving privilege by paying a $150. Instead, Ackers decided to wait out the process and use his moped to get around town and to work.
“I’m going to wait it out instead of paying,” he said.
“As long as I don’t have to haul anything, I can go where I want.”
Ackers bought his moped from Ty, 34, of Winston Salem. Ty asked that his last name not be printed. He works customizing mopeds in a basement garage and is something of a moped apostle with an affinity for 1970’s era cycles. His first moped came from a friend who said he could have it if he fixed it up.
“Moped riders are an underserved group,” he said.
“Scooters are pretty popular in this state. The belief that most people who drive scooters have DUIs or whatever is completely untrue.”
The registration requirement doesn’t bother Ty. In fact, he thinks the new requirement will make it easier for moped riders to retrieve their cycles if stolen. Right now, without registration police have a difficult, if not impossible, task identifying individual mopeds.
“Police don’t care about a stolen scooter,” Ty said. Anything other regulation Ty views as a money grab by state politicians looking to generate more revenue by taxing the poor. Even when a moped does crash, Ty believes more damage is done to the moped than anything else.
“Do bicycle riders need insurance when they hit a car? There is no representation for moped riders,” he said. “A lot of this is purely economical for the state. It affects poor people. That’s the demographic. This is the cheapest form of transportation.” !