Braden Poovey sometimes wishes he could pull over moped drivers and tell them everything they’re doing wrong. His opportunities rose this week as University of South Carolina students returned from winter break.
In some cases, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation-certified instructor would have a laundry list of do’s and don’ts. But Poovey can only shake his head and sigh.
He sees moped users not wearing the proper gear, driving distracted or dragging their feet as they turn or go through intersections.
“They don’t feel confident enough with the machine,” said Poovey, a West Columbia resident whose motorcycle is his primary means of transportation. “They don’t put the effort into learning its balance.”
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South Carolina law defines mopeds as two-wheeled vehicles with engines no bigger than 50 cubic centimeters. The law restricts drivers from going faster than 25 mph.
It isn’t just Poovey who has noticed. Lance Cpl. David Jones of the S.C. Highway Patrol said he is used to getting calls from angry drivers stuck behind puttering mopeds on major highways.
Jones said he has seen moped operators driving with one hand and on the phone with the other. He’s seen drivers more attuned to the music from their headphones than to what’s going on around them.
Sgt. Derek Miller with the Columbia Traffic Safety Unit said he’s seen moped drivers without helmets cutting in and out of traffic.
But the vehicles’ low cost and high fuel efficiency have made them a popular transportation option. Base models can be bought for less than $900 in Columbia, and some can get between 80 and 90 miles per gallon.
Nathan Ryan, a 19-year-old USC student, said buying a moped this summer from a friend who graduated was a perfect solution to limited on-campus parking.
“I just moved off campus this year, and it makes it a lot easier to get around campus,” said Ryan, who bought his with the hundreds of dollars he would have paid for a garage parking pass.
Convenience vs. safety
As the spring semester began, there were more than 9,800 moped licenses statewide, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. About 560 of those are in Richland County.
But mopeds aren’t just for the college crowd.
David Huddleston, 68, said he drives the one he bought through Craigslist almost every day. The retired Dreher High School teacher said it’s perfect for quick trips to the grocery store, visiting friends across town and finding parking in crowded areas.
“Any time there’s a concert or street event where it’s hard to get in, you can just slide right in with the scooter,” Huddleston said.
The other side of such convenience is worries about safety.
The number of collisions on mopeds, scooters or similar motorbikes increased almost 369 percent from 2001 to 2013, the most recent year for which statewide final figures are available. The number of accidents shot up from 167 in 2001 to 783 in 2013, according to the Department of Public Safety.
Almost 87.5 percent of the collisions in 2013 left at least one person injured, the data show. Someone died in just more than 3 percent of those collisions.
The Highway Patrol’s Jones safety tips include wearing highly visible clothing and making sure the moped has the proper lights.
Mopeds should always be driven with two hands. Poovey, the safety instructor, suggests avoiding “target fixation.” Two-wheeled vehicles tend to go wherever the driver is looking. “If you don’t want to hit it, don’t look at it,” he said.
A passenger on a moped isn’t typically dangerous because mopeds are now built to hold plenty of weight. But only experienced drivers should take on a passenger because the moped’s weight distribution and dynamics change with a second rider, Poovey said. Some mopeds aren’t made to carry two riders, anyway.
Mopeds are not considered “motor vehicles” under South Carolina law, meaning that drivers cannot be charged with driving under the influence while on one. Mopeds also are barred from riding on sidewalks.
No training is required to operate a moped, and users as young as 14 years old can apply for a moped-specific license.
Though scooters and motorcycles must have a vehicle license tag, mopeds need only tags issued by the dealer.
State lawmakers are trying to better regulate the machines.
Rep. Mike Ryhal, R-Horry, sponsored a bill to require moped riders to wear reflective vests and for the scooters to have a red, constantly flashing rear tail light. Ryhal said he is concerned mopeds aren’t visible enough on the state’s roads, especially at night.
Another House bill would require mopeds to be registered and carry liability insurance. That legislation also would bar mopeds from public roads with speed limits above 55 mph and keep people with suspended licenses from being issued a moped license.
Reach Wilks at (803) 771-8362.