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Streets abuzz with gas-efficient scooters

Sat., June 2, 2007

In a city where a tank of gas can cost more than a steak dinner for two, Brandan Stern scoots around all week on Happy Meal prices.

“It costs me $4 to fill it up,” Stern said of his champaigne gold Milan scooter.

The 23-year-old Spokane Valley resident uses the motorbike as his sole source of transportation, driving as far as Shadle Park at least a couple of times a week to see his folks. Its 49 cubic-centimeter engine is just small enough that the state of Washington doesn’t require Stern to have a motorcycle endorsement on his driver’s license.

Maximum speed on the scooter is 40 mph, which Stern said is good enough. The fast-food worker and hip-hop producer for the band Eazy Locz sees no reason to put his kickstand down for good – not when regular gas is selling for $3.26 a gallon.

“I don’t know why I’d want a car,” Stern said.

He’s not alone. Local streets are buzzing with scooters and even mini replica motorcycles known as pocket bikes as commuters try to save a few bucks. That trend has police concerned about whether the motorized vehicles are on the road legally and that folks behind the handlebars are prepared for the roads on which they ride. Dealers say some bikes simply lack the oomph for 35 mph traffic and shouldn’t be driven on major arterials like Sprague Avenue.

“I anticipate seeing pocket bikes and scooters more and more because of rising gas prices,” said traffic Sgt. Brett Gores, of the Spokane Valley Police Department.

Pocket bikes have become a real headache for police, Gores said, because the bikes are only mentioned vaguely in Washington law books. State law doesn’t recognize pocket bikes as motor vehicles and because of that all the requirements that go along with driving a motor vehicle, like having a license, don’t seem to apply.

The lack of legal definition has raised real questions for police, like whether a person convicted of drunken driving and banned from driving motor vehicles can still buzz over to the local tavern on a pocket bike. Can a child too young to drive a state-recognized motor vehicle still take to the streets on a pocket bike – and who’s liable if the bike crashes into a real motor vehicle? The answers seem obvious to police, who would like to see pocket bikes off local streets entirely, Gores said.

But pocket bike riders have successfully challenged tickets for motor vehicle violations in court on grounds they weren’t driving motor vehicles in the first place.

“In my opinion they present several problems,” Gores said. “They’re so low to the ground they’re hard to see. They travel at a high rate of speed. A lot of people driving them have no license or are kids with no license.”

City governments can pass local ordinances to deal with pocket bikes. Spokane Valley requires that riders be at least 16, wear helmets and stay on streets where the speed limit isn’t greater than 25 mph. A pocket bike driver on a 25 mph street isn’t even supposed to cross a street with a 35 mph speed limit, Gores said, because the bikes lack the oomph to safely negotiate 35 mph traffic.

Small scooters are also not recommended for 35 mph streets, because they cannot accelerate fast enough to avoid accidents or as fast as the traffic around them.

Motorcycle dealers say they steer customers toward larger engine bikes if it sounds like a buyer will be cruising major arterials.

“The smallest street legal scooter we carry is 200 cubic centimeters,” said Bob Fayant, of D&B Power Sports. “Vespa made a 150 cc scooter that was street worthy, but anything below that shouldn’t be out there in traffic.”

Fayant’s business doesn’t sell pocket bikes, primarily because it’s hard to find parts to repair them. His shop on Sprague Avenue near Home Depot gets its share of pocket bike owners looking for someone to fix their bikes. Fayant’s mechanics won’t touch them.

James Valenzuela, of All Sport Racing, also recommends that buyers planning to ride on major streets opt for a bigger scooter. A selling point for scooters is often there’s no shifting required. All Sport also sells scooters with small enough engines that a motorcycle endorsement isn’t required for riding them. And not having to get the endorsement is a big selling point for some buyers, he said.

However, the endorsement isn’t hard to get, Valenzuela said, and drivers who take the riding course pick up skills valuable to anyone driving down the street on two wheels.

“I’m a class person,” Valenzuela said. “I wish they had a class for everything on the road. I would recommend at least taking the course.”

Scooter sales at All Sport have sky rocketed this year, said Valenzuela, who described his buyers as between ages 18 and 45. The bikes now rival motorcycles in sales.

Registrations for motorcycles, including scooters, for Spokane County have been on the rise for several years, according to the Washington Department of Licensing. In 2004, there were roughly 10,300 scooters registered in Spokane County. That number had grown by 2,700 bikes by the end of 2006.

Washington too, is worried about the road-worthiness of its two-wheeled masses. A motorcycle safety study released last year found that 60 percent of all motorcycle accidents didn’t involve another vehicle, leaving only the rider to blame. Half of motorcycle fatalities in Washington involve alcohol.

The state has a Web site promoting training for all motorcycle riders:

Licensing officials are also quick to point out that a motorcycle endorsement is required to drive any bike that travels faster than 35 mph regardless of how big its engine is. Scooter isn’t a word recognized in state law. If a motorcycle goes no faster than 35 mph and has an engine smaller than 50 cubic centimeters, its proper name is mo-ped. Anything that travels faster or had a bigger engine is a motorcycle, no matter how it’s marketed.


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