Mini scooters fuel concerns
Safety, legal issues arise over motor scooters
Published: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 12:37 a.m.
Some are little more than glorified skateboards. Others look like pint-sized versions of street-legal motor scooters, their tires resembling supersized LifeSavers.
And since Christmas, streets and sidewalks in parts of Gainesville have been buzzing noisily with the latest headache for law enforcement: motorized scooters.
"We never had the problem previous to this holiday season," said Sgt. Keith Faulk of the Alachua County Sheriff's Office. "Since Christmas they seem to be all over. We have had complaints - from motorists, neighbors, business owners."
Kids, some not yet in their teens, have taken to neighborhood and city streets, sidewalks and private parking lots riding these mostly gas-engined scooters that can reach speeds of 25 mph. They ride in the middle of streets, in bike lanes and sidewalks, usually wearing no helmet or other protective gear.
And they ride, apparently, illegally.
Florida law isn't clear about how motorized scooters - sometimes called "Go-Peds" after one of the first brands to be marketed - are to be classified and regulated.
Are they "motor vehicles," which need to be registered, tagged and operated only by someone with a valid driver's license? Or are they a special category of motor vehicle, such as an all-terrain vehicle, and therefore still not legal to be ridden in the street or on sidewalks?
In response to questions from law enforcement agencies, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist in the fall issued an advisory opinion concluding that these vehicles - whatever their murky legal status - cannot be ridden in the street or on sidewalks.
"They're now sort of classified as a recreational vehicle, much like an ATV, and can only be ridden in a driveway or on private property," said Sgt. Bruce Giles of the Gainesville Police Department's Traffic Safety Team. "You can't have something that goes 25 miles an hour on a sidewalk."
But since Christmas, that's where you often see these once-pricey conveyances, whose popularity has risen as their prices have dropped from several hundred dollars to less than $200 for some models.
On New Year's Day, a young boy was seen riding a scooter at full speed on a sidewalk beside NW 39th Avenue, not slowing down at driveways or cross streets.
In the Mile Run subdivision in northwest Gainesville one night after Christmas, a boy of about 12 rode his scooter - without lights - in a dark street.
And on Friday, several scooters - all Christmas gifts, their riders said - zipped on, along and across NE 8th Avenue in the 2000 block, their adolescent drivers sometimes obliviously cutting in front of traffic.
"Unfortunately, this is a tragedy waiting to happen," said Faulk, who recently saw two boys riding on a scooter against traffic in the bike lane on NW 13th Street.
Claudia Turk, a resident of Gardenia Gardens on NE 8th Avenue, said the neighborhood has come alive with gas-powered scooters since Christmas.
"They're not safe with these children riding them in the street and cutting in front of cars," Turk said as her 6-year-old daughter, Brittiana, whisked without a helmet across the Gardenia parking lot on a tiny electric scooter she got for Christmas.
"My daughter rides only in the parking lot area," she said.
A few blocks away, Yolanda Gainey, 16, rode her new burgundy motor scooter with yellow flames on the sidewalk before turning onto a side street to go to her grandmother's home. She said her father, who gave her the scooter for Christmas, told her never to ride in the street.
"But I thought you could ride it in the bike lane on the side of the street," Gainey said when told it was illegal to ride even on the sidewalk.
"They need to make it illegal for these little kids who ride all up and down the street," she said.
Faulk and Giles said police have been trying to educate riders and their parents, through such things as public service announcements on radio and TV, about the use and dangers of motorized scooters. Police also have been stopping scooter riders and giving warnings, but now they're starting to write tickets.
"If it's in the street or on the sidewalk, they could be cited for not registering their vehicle," Giles said, adding that fines could begin at $66 depending on the violation.
The Florida Legislature in 2002 removed motorized scooters from the definition of motor vehicle in one chapter of the Florida statutes. But lawmakers didn't similarly amend the definition in other chapters, an oversight that has led to confusion among law enforcement agencies.
Giles said he doesn't know if regulation of miniature motorized scooters will be on lawmakers' agenda in the 2004 session. But Attorney General Crist, in a September letter to Ormond Beach Police Chief Larry Mathieson, acknowledged the inconsistencies in the law and said his office has suggested the issue be revisited.
"The Legislature may wish to . . . clarify its intent regarding the operation of motorized scooters in this state," Crist wrote. "In light of the lack of consistency in the way these issues are treated in the Florida statutes, I would suggest that the Legislature re-examine this area of the law."
Faulk said safety is his primary concern.
"No one I've seen riding these things has been wearing any protection," he said, adding that dangers exist even when riding the scooters in parking lots. "I hate to say it, but there are going to be traumatic injuries involving these scooters."
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at 374-5042 or email@example.com.
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