Police, lawmakers looking to make SC roads safer for mopeds

nophillips@thestate.comFebruary 18, 2013 

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    Moped fatalities As more people ride mopeds, the number of people killed on them also is rising.

    2012: 37

    2011: 24

    2010: 21

    2009: 18

    Source: S.C. Office of Highway Safety and Justice Programs

Jonathan Crouch understands why other motorists might get frustrated when they travel behind his moped.

But the 29-year-old mechanic wishes they would be more patient for those who choose an affordable mode of transportation.

“People don’t really look out for mopeds,” Crouch said. “They disregard them altogether. They only go 25 miles per hour and that slows traffic, which leads to road rage.”

In the past five years, the number of moped riders in South Carolina has more than doubled as people look for cheaper ways to get around town. But that increase in popularity has come with some confusion and some costs.

Because mopeds are exempt from state driving-under-the-influence laws, police are confused about how traffic laws apply to them.

“Is it a moving vehicle or not?” said Col. Michael Oliver, commander of the S.C. Highway Patrol. “That’s an issue we have today.”

And, as more people ride mopeds, the rising number of fatalities involving them has alarmed highway safety officials.

All of this has led the S.C. Highway Patrol and state lawmakers to search for ways to make travel safer for the thousands of people who ride the motorbikes.

While mopeds share the road with cars, trucks and motorcycles, they do not have to abide by the same regulations. Moped drivers do not register their vehicles, they are not required to carry vehicle insurance and when they are drunk, they cannot be charged with driving under the influence.

Anyone with a South Carolina driver’s license is eligible to drive a moped. Also, moped drivers ages 14 and older without a driver’s license can apply for a $25 moped license that is awarded after they pass a 25-question test. And a person who has had a regular driver’s license suspended after a first driving-under-the-influence conviction can obtain a moped license.

While the number of moped licenses issued by the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles does not accurately reflect the number of the motorbikes on the roads, it does show their growing popularity.

In the past five years, the number of moped licenses issued has more than doubled, to 8,603, according to data provided by the DMV.

Time for more regulations?

The rising number of mopeds on the roads has brought more fatalities for moped drivers.

In one year, S.C. moped fatalities jumped 54 percent, to 37 in 2012 from 24 in 2011, said Phil Riley, director of the state Office of Highway Safety and Justice Programs.

“That number stood out like a sore thumb,” Riley said. “The data drives our efforts.”

The highway safety office this spring will launch a $200,000 marketing campaign aimed at moped riders. Troopers will begin stopping moped riders to talk to them about visibility and to make suggestions on how to protect themselves, he said.

To eliminate confusion over how to charge drivers who break traffic laws, the S.C. General Assembly is seeking to change the law so that mopeds are considered moving vehicles.

A bill that would eliminate their exemption from the state’s DUI law already has been approved by the House and now is awaiting consideration by the Senate.

Sen. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, said he co-sponsored the bill after hearing from police officers about being unable to cite drunk moped riders with driving under the influence. Police told him mopeds had been nicknamed “liquor cycles” because people know they can get away with driving them while drunk, Tallon said.

“If you can charge someone riding a lawnmower with DUI, you ought to be able to charge somebody riding a moped with it,” he said.

The Highway Patrol has created a handbook for other police agencies to help them determine which laws apply to moped drivers, Oliver said. While magistrates dismiss driving-under-the-influence charges, state troopers will pull over moped riders who appear to be drunk. The driver can be charged with public intoxication, he said.

“We’re going to get them off the road one way or another,” Oliver said.

No one knows exactly why mopeds were exempted from state DUI laws.

Some speculate it’s because mopeds once had pedals that riders used to get started, which made them more like bicycles than cars. Today, mopeds do not have pedals, and they’re powered by small engines with limits on maximum speed.

An affordable ride

Moped popularity took off shortly after the most recent rise in gas prices.

On a recent afternoon at Hawg Scooters on Rosewood Drive, every moped rider in the store said money was the No. 1 reason for riding them.

Mopeds usually cost less than $1,000, so people who can’t afford cars can buy them. And their gas mileage averages 80 to 100 miles per gallon, said Justin Clark, Hawg Scooters’ manager.

They are very popular with college students. Clark’s mother bought him a moped when he was a freshman at USC.

“My first semester on campus, I got about $300 in parking tickets,” he said. “My mom wasn’t pleased. She got me a moped.”

After that, Clark no longer had to search for a parking space. He could park his ride at the front door of buildings.

At Hawg Scooters, Clark and his staff encourage their customers to wear helmets. Out of three staff members who ride mopeds, two regularly wear helmets.

Ian Seratine, a 27-year-old mechanic, said he is most nervous when cars pass too closely.

“They pass me, but they don’t leave any room,” he said. “It’s almost like they’re going to clip me.”

That conflict between car and moped rider is one reason the Highway Patrol will launch its safety campaign this spring with billboards and public service announcements for radio and television.

While other motorists should treat a moped like any other vehicle on the road, the safety campaign will focus on the moped drivers and things they can do to protect themselves, Oliver said.

An analysis of data from wrecks shows that most moped riders are killed in accidents at night when hit from behind.

That’s because cars travel so much faster than mopeds, and a driver in a car often doesn’t have enough time to stop once he sees the moped, Oliver said.

To reduce those fatalities, the Highway Patrol wants moped riders to wear reflective vests, especially at night, Oliver said. A bill has been filed in the Legislature that would require moped riders to wear reflective material but has not gained traction.

At night, a person wearing reflective material can be seen from 500 feet, Oliver said. But someone wearing white or a darker color are visible from 180 feet or less. And a car traveling 60 miles per hour needs 260 feet to stop.

“They need to wear real reflective clothing,” Oliver said. “Do something to protect yourself.”

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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