Motor scooter and motorcycle sales in York County and across the nation are booming as drivers look for ways to trim the cost of soaring gas prices.
But safety advocates worry that means a potentially dangerous rush of inexperienced riders is hitting the road.
Scooter sales jumped 24 percent nationwide in the year's first quarter, according to the trade group Motorcycle Industry Council.
Motorcycle sales were down on the whole, but those with smaller engines that get better gas mileage saw an upturn, said council spokesman Mike Mount. Used motorcycle sales also are climbing, he said.
The Piaggio Group, which makes Vespa motor scooters, saw its June U.S. sales catapult 146 percent compared to the same time last year.
Local dealers say it's tough to keep up with the burgeoning demand.
"I can't keep them in stock," said Vicki Punall, sales manager at Hager Cycle World in Rock Hill. "I didn't sell any in the first six months of last year. I sold 20 scooters in June.
"Customers tell you it's because of gas prices."
Jim Coulter bought a Suzuki Burgman 650 scooter in May. The 67-year-old retired engineer drives it from his home in Rock Hill to a Chester golf course several times a week and runs errands with it.
His $8,000 motor scooter gets about 55 miles per gallon. The cost of filling the four-gallon tank: $11.
"That's what I like about it," said Coulter, who has been licensed to drive motorcycles since 1976. "If I had to drive to work every day, I would ride this thing even more."
Depending on engine size, motorcycles can get between 40 and 60 miles per gallon of gas. Scooters, which tend to be smaller and easier to drive, can reach 100 miles per gallon.
That's attracting newbies, dealers said.
"I've got customers who are not remotely interested in motorcycles ... jumping on the band wagon," said Doug Smith, a sales manager at Alpha Motorsports in Rock Hill.
Law enforcement officials and motorcycle experts say these new riders, if untrained, pose a safety risk.
"There's a concern that a lot of people are going and buying a motorcycle and just hitting the road," said Ron Carty, a member of the S.C. Department of Public Safety's Motorcycle Safety Task Force.
State law doesn't require riders to take safety courses to get a motorcycle permit.
The task force counts 121 motorcycle fatalities statewide in 2007. Members worry a surge of novice riders could lead to more this year, Carty said. So far this year, according to Highway Patrol statistics, 62 people have died in motorcycle accidents, compared with 69 at this time last year.
While motorcycles tend to be faster than scooters, safety concerns are the same, said Highway Patrol Cpl. Bryan McDougald. Neither is built to withstand a wreck, he said, and drivers should be trained.
The Motorcycle Safety Foundation, which coordinates rider training across the U.S., agrees.
"A beginner course is a good place to find out if a two-wheel vehicle is for you ... to see if you feel comfortable and competent," said foundation spokesman Dean Thompson. "If you don't like it, find a different way to save money on transportation."
A Safer Ride
The Motorcycle Safety Foundation offers these tips for two- and four-wheel drivers:
Get trained and licensed -- The foundation recommends its RiderCourse; obtain a Class M motorcycle license from the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles.
Wear protective riding gear -- All the gear all the time -- most importantly a helmet made to the standards of the Department of Transportation.
Don't drink and ride -- Never drink or use other drugs before getting on a motorcycle.
Know your limits -- Never ride faster or farther than your abilities can handle.
Be a lifelong learner -- Hone your skills by taking refresher riding courses.
Look for motorcyclists -- Use your eyes and mirrors to see what's around.
Pay attention -- Hang up and drive, put down the food, the pet, the personal grooming gear, the CD and the reading material and save it for later. Use turn signals -- Signal your intentions. It's the law.
Give two-wheelers some room -- Don't tailgate or get too close side-by-side.
Keep it in the car -- Don't throw trash and cigarettes out the window, and tie down cargo that can fall on the road and be a deadly hazard.
For more safety tips, information on RiderCourses and other information, go to msf-usa.org