MOPEDS, MO’ PROBLEMS?

For Weekly SurgeNovember 13, 2013 

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    South Carolina Code of Laws, Section 56-1-1710:

    For purposes of this article, "moped" means a cycle with pedals to permit propulsion by human power or without pedals and with a motor of not more than 50 cubic centimeters which produces not to exceed two brake horsepower and which is not capable of propelling the vehicle at a speed in excess of thirty miles an hour on level ground. If an internal combustion engine is used, the moped must have a power drive system that functions directly or automatically without clutching or shifting by the operator after the drive system is engaged.

The speed limit is 45 miles per hour on Carolina Forest Boulevard. After sunset, the visibility on this particular road is reduced significantly as you might well imagine. In this day and age of everyone being in a rush, there is no need to assume that anyone drives the speed limit - unless there’s a cop parked nearby. However, the law has determined that 45 mph is the best speed to safely navigate this road day or night. Laws are made for our own safety and well being. Right?

If that is true, why is there a law that allows a 14-year-old the privilege of operating a motorized vehicle down Carolina Forest Boulevard that has the maximum speed capability, by law, of 25 mph? Why is a 14-year old allowed to, legally, operate a vehicle on a public road at all, in fact? And why are folks who’ve had their licenses suspended because of DUI allowed to operate the same kind of two-wheeled motorized vehicle on public streets? And why are these modes of transport exempt from South Carolina DUI laws when you can get busted for driving drunk on a lawnmower?

The influx of mopeds into our beach community has some positive attributes, such as providing an economic, environtmentally-friendly alertnative for local college students to zip around campus. Some are great for the local economy as business owners rent the two-wheelers to tourists, and riding one can be down right fun, while the other side of the coin is, these slow-moving motorbikes may put our area’s drivers at risk while on our high-density, high-speed roads. Not only danger for the the moped operators, but for the people driving along side of them.

Should mopeds warrant a bit more scrutiny - and are they really “liquour bikes” as they’ve come to be known along the beach?

A Scooter and a Moped are NOT the Same

The state of South Carolina has established differences between a motorcycle, a scooter and a moped. Obviously, a motorcycle has standard licensing, insurance and registration requirements to operate on the roadways. The state has also drawn specific lines in terms of build, power and operation that distinguish a scooter from a moped.

A moped, by definition of the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, may have pedals or no pedals. If the moped has pedals, they must be operational. The engine of the moped must not exceed 50 cubic centimeters and must not propel the bike more than 25 miles per hour on level ground. There can, also, be no shifting once the bike is operational. This means that there are no gears for the engine to proceed through to reach its top speed.

Among the requirements to be street legal, a moped must have at least one rearview mirror. It must have working running lights to be used at all times. A working brake light when the brakes are engaged and the seat for the driver and any passengers must be an attached, permanent fixture on the bike itself. Recently, the state is also requiring a “moped” tag to be on display with matching registration numbers on the tag and the frame of the bike.

If the bike has an engine that is more than 50 cc, it is considered a scooter or motorcycle. Both of these have the same classification when it comes to licensing, insurance and registration. You must obtain a Class M (motorcycle) license and you must hold liability insurance in order to operate a scooter on public streets. The same rules apply for operating a motorcycle.

The South Carolina Highway Patrol has issued a Guide to Enforcement of Moped/Scooter Laws for Law Enforcement officers. This is a quick study that reviews some of the ways to determine the difference between a scooter and a moped. Subtle hints like the size of engine printed on the body of the scooter, the top speed as it reads on the gauges and the presence of passenger foot pegs are quick ways to tell the difference. A scooter will have a visible engine size and passenger foot pegs as well as a top speed on the speedometer more similar to a motorcycle. A moped will show a top speed of around 45 miles per hour on the gauges and will lack the other indicators.

The helmet laws for all three of these classifications of vehicle are the same. If you are younger than 21, it is the law that you must wear a helmet as a driver or passenger. The state gives the option to anyone older than 21 to choose whether or not they wear a helmet. The helmet debate is an ongoing topic of safety, especially during locally bike rallies, and it should be carefully considered when making the choice.

The definition of a scooter seems to be regulated well within the confines of safe traveling for both the operator and the cars around it. Holding the same regulations as a motorcycle makes perfect sense given the speed of travel and size of engine. Mopeds, on the other hand, present a different threshold of what is defined as “safe travel” on our streets.

Who is eligible to drive a moped on streets?

The most controversial aspects of the South Carolina moped laws are the state’s requirements regarding riding this type of vehicle on any of our public streets and highways.

To legally operate a moped, you have to be at least 14-years-old and obtain a Class G moped license. Anyone younger than 18 who is accompanied by a parent or legal guardian can take a 25 question test at the DMV, pay a $25 fee and pass an eye exam to obtain this license. If you are already a licensed driver, you do not need a moped license for street transportation. However, a learner’s permit is not acceptable in lieu of a Class G license.

The Class G moped license is issued independently of the other types of driving license. It may be issued regardless of the status of any other class of driving license and it can not be revoked for any reason outside of operating a moped.

If you are a licensed driver and your license is suspended for less than six months, you do not have to obtain a moped license to legally operate one on the street. If your license is suspended for more than six months, however, you must follow the guidelines for a Class G license to operate a moped.

The last sector of people that are able to drive mopeds on our streets falls into the tourist category. Rental shops have popped up all over the beach leasing mopeds for tourists to cruise to the beach and various attractions. Falling into a gray area of dollars over safety is a concern for, not only the locals, but the shop owners as well.

Dennis McEachern, manager at Boulineau’s Beach Buggies (316 Main Street, North Myrtle Beach) says that safety is the No. 1 concern for the business. Instead of following the state issued requirements for operating a moped, Boulineau’s requires a valid driver’s license as well as a signed liability contract in order to rent a moped. The contract must be signed by a parent or guardian if the driver is younger than 18.

In addition to only renting to people with driving experience, Boulineau’s provides instructions on operating the bike and requires that all drivers and passengers were a helmet, which is included in the rental fee. One of the safety points on the contract is that drivers safely pull over and allow faster traffic to pass when on public street and roads. This is a vital safety rule that is, many times, over looked by moped drivers. The dangers of driving a small bike at 25 miles per hour on a road where the posted speed limit is 55 miles per hour, such as the heavily-traveled U.S. 17 Bypass, is most commonly ignored. At Boulineau’s, they encourage moped drivers to stay on small, beach streets and to avoid U.S. 17, S.C. 31 and traveling beyond certain distances.

McEachern says that his shop also sells the rental bikes at the end of each season. After a summer of wear-and -tear, the staff ensures that all bikes are operational and, then, sells the bikes starting at around $500. This has become the most popular purchase price for moped drivers. Boulineau’s sells higher quality, brand new bikes starting around $1,500 in the showroom as well. Thus, McEachern sees a wide demographic of moped users. From the spring breakers looking to have some fun in the sun, to the local who needs a ride to work, to the recently retired who want an easy, fun way to run errands now that they live at the beach.

As the laws concerning mopeds in South Carolina currently stand, the responsibility falls onto the judgement of the operator and less in the hands of sales and rental companies, or even police officers, as to how safe you have to be on these vehicles.

Why people drive mopeds?

According to Columbia’s The State newspaper, “In the past five years, the number of moped licenses issued (in South Carolina) has more than doubled, to 8,603, according to data provided by the DMV.”

If a moped is a regular mode of transportation, there are two ideologies at work for Myrtle Beach. First, residents with a suspended license have a cost efficient method to solve their transportation situation for work-related travel. Second, there is an economical, environmental and convenience aspect to mopeds that cars simply cannot supply.

McEachern says that a majority of the business in sales comes from people with DUI-suspended licenses. Typically, a repeat DUI offense warrants suspending driving rights in South Carolina. Due to the licensing laws for mopeds, buying a moped is one of the only options for people that can not, legally, operate an automobile or motorcycle. It is a cost-effective, but, most importantly, legal means out of a tough situation. The words “liquor bike” were tossed around our discussion in jest, but McEachern, honestly, says “we have to make them safer, but we can’t take them away from people who get caught drinking and driving and still need to get to work.”

Adding another wrinkle to the “liquor cycle” label is the fact that mopeds are exempt from the Palmetto State’s DUI laws, although moped operators can be charged with public intoxication. “So when someone is riding a moped and is legally drunk, they get a ticket but since mopeds are exempt from the state’s motor vehicle laws, Palmetto State magistrates have been dismissing the cases,” reads an AAA Carolinas blog posted in 2012.

State legislators have tried to close the loophole, but Sen. Raymond Cleary of Murrells Inlet, said Wednesday that no action had been finalized.

“There have been no changes enacted which would end the DUI exemption for mopeds, but legislation to that effect is still pending in the S.C. General Assembly,” said Lieutenant R. K. Hughes with the South Carolina Department of Public Safety Communications Office.

Meanwhile, DUI offenses have been on a steady increase as South Carolina cracks down on drinknig and driving. This is partly why driving a moped is increasing year after year.

“Drivers of regular vehicles who have had their driver’s license suspended for driving under the influence (DUI), have hopped on mopeds as an alternative way to get around,” states the aforementioned AAA blog.

While this is a solution to a mistake for some, it is not the only reason we see mopeds on our streets and highways. There are plenty of people who drive these bikes strictly for the economics and mobility.

Eric Righter, the General Manager at Redline Powersports (4663 U.S. 501, Myrtle Beach), identified price as a driving factor when people choose to use a moped for transportation. They are, relatively, cheap to purchase and, at more than 100 miles per gallon, cheap to maintain. As in anything, price and quality are related. Righter said that “Redline is getting into the sale of used mopeds this month.” This will fill the demand for more cost-efficient bikes made by quality manufacturers. You will not see poorly made, flimsy bikes in his showroom. It is very much a get-what-you-pay-for situation.

Righter and his team are experts on the subject. He says that safety is a hot topic around the showroom and that by purchasing a higher quality bike, the safety on the road is better. He indicated that the power in the running lights, head lamps and brake lights on the mopeds that he sells can be more powerful and more visible than on the cheaper, rental caliber mopeds he sees on the road. Even the parts last longer and are more durable as you get into well known manufacturers such as Yamaha and Honda.

If environmental issues are your motivation for moped travel, the cheap models are not as efficient on gas nor emissions as the more sound machines. Righter says that his brand new mopeds start in the range of $2,000 off the showroom floor and his new pre-owned program will allow him to bring that to around $1,500 for a top quality, pre-owned moped.

The number of college students that are getting in on the moped trend is growing each year as well. It is small, mobile and uses far less gas than a car. Coastal Carolina University has addressed the increase in moped usage by students in recent years. Requiring that mopeds be registered with the Department of Public Safety, obtain a parking permit and obey all traffic signs and rules while on campus are all ways of identifying them as a motor vehicle. The university does not differentiate between a motorcycle, moped or scooter in regard to traveling safely through campus. This is another example, outside of the rental market, where institutions are able to exercise their best judgement while still operating within the confines of the law.

This year, the state has proposed that moped operators be mandated to wear reflective vests. It would significantly increase the visibility to other drivers and, hopefully, reduce moped-related accidents. Righter thinks that this might be a good idea given the low speed and lower visibility that these bikes have on our roads. While this bill has not gained much traction in our state government, the concerns are still being discussed.

The Safety Issues

There are two distinct perspectives about safety when it comes to the operation of mopeds on our streets. First, the safety of the moped operator and his/her ability to operate a vehicle responsibly. Second, the safety of the other drivers on the road.

It is obvious to see the dangers if a moped were to be in an accident with a car. There is, virtually, no protection in the event of an accident for the moped driver. No laws require protective helmets (except for riders younger than 21), reflective clothing or limit the use to certain streets. These all present a risk for anyone driving a moped.

The other side of the coin is that the automobile operator has no protection, legally, from damage or injury. Should there be damage or injury to the car or the passengers, the moped driver does not have liability insurance to cover such cases. Granted the likeliness of a moped injuring someone in an automobile would be nothing short of a fluke, the possibility is still there.

Most of the car drivers we talked with agree that mopeds are the cause of some mild road rage and aggressive passing decisions on certain roads in Myrtle Beach. Summer Huggins of Myrtle Beach simply stated, “they go too slow” when asked her thoughts of mopeds on our area streets. While this problem exists within the legal bounds of the law, perhaps more safety measures and driver training would benefit the operators as well as the drivers around them.

As we consider the safety of our residents and visitors, the moped driver is not the only concern we should have. More driving experience, mandatory insurance and more stringent licensing would all benefit us greatly. There is progress and there is hope. But for now, keep the road rage down and, whether you are on a moped or in a car, consider other drivers while on your commute and keep each other safe.

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