One man wanted to shrink his carbon footprint. Another saw a chance to save gas money. A third needed a way to get around after losing his driver’s license.
All turned to the venerable moped, a low-powered form of two-wheeled transportation that’s been around for decades but has surged in popularity in recent years.
For a long time, mopeds were known as “liquor cycles” or “DUI mobiles,” a fall-back ride for folks who lost their driver’s licenses to drunken driving charges. That all changed with an evolving environmental consciousness, a crippling recession and gas prices that hover around three bucks a gallon. Now, all sorts of people are riding mopeds, from penny- pinching college students to free-spirited nuns.
“Business is a lot better than we anticipated,” said George Merriweather, a regular rider whose wife owns Moped Medic in West Ashley. “It’s just really taking off.”
Just up Savannah Highway, Lowcountry Scooter owner Carl Hall estimates he has sold about 400 of the diminutive cycles since April.
The attraction is obvious: They’re cheaper than cars, get great gas mileage — 70 miles a gallon or more — don’t require insurance and are easy to park. But they can also seem pretty puny and exposed putting along the open road at 30 mph.
George Lutz of Yonge’s Island is among the moped converts. He bought a Keeway Hurricane to save on gas and create less pollution. Now, he uses it any chance he gets.
“I just absolutely love the freedom a moped gives you in terms of being in touch with the environment and enjoying all the different smells you don’t get in the cage of a car,” Lutz said.
Not everyone is so thrilled with the preponderance of mopeds on the road. Some conventional motorists chafe at getting stuck behind the slow-moving scooters on busy roads. Count Albert Robison of West Ashley among that group.
“I just get so annoyed with those things. It’s like the people on them are in the Twilight Zone. They dart out in front of you, and then they’re in the middle of the road and you can’t get around them,” Robinson said, his voice rising. “I can understand someone needing to get from Point A to Point B. But that’s what the city bus is for. This is the open road.”
The state Department of Motor Vehicles doesn’t keep figures on the total number of mopeds in South Carolina, but it does track the number of people with licenses that limit them to driving mopeds. That figure has more than doubled, to nearly 6,000 riders, over the past five years, said DMV spokeswoman Beth Parks.
With their increased presence on the roadways has come a nearly two-fold jump in the number of wrecks involving mopeds. Preliminary figures show mopeds were involved in 479 crashes across the state in 2010, with 16 people killed and 476 injured, according to the state Department of Public Safety.
In November, a 23-year-old man was killed when an allegedly intoxicated driver struck his moped in West Ashley. Two months earlier, a 62-year-old man on a moped was killed in Berkeley County when a car struck him from behind. And in August, a 57-year-old man died when his moped struck a utility pole in Mount Pleasant.
Such incidents have caught the attention of state lawmakers, and a number of bills are in the legislative pipeline to improve safety. Various measures would require moped riders to carry liability insurance, install strobe lights and wear reflective vests for greater visibility. Still another bill would definitively make it a crime to drive drunk on a moped in South Carolina, eliminating language that specifically excludes mopeds from the definition of a motor vehicle.
State Sen. Thomas Alexander, an Oconee Republican, is pushing the strobe light bill. He said mopeds can be tough for other motorists to see until it’s too late, particularly along the steep, twisty roads in his Upstate district. “You come around a corner and you’re right on top of a moped before you realize it’s there,” he said. “It’s dangerous.”
Hall, of Lowcountry Scooter, said many of his customers already employ such measures and buy insurance as a precaution. Several riders interviewed also said they would not object to additional safety requirements.
An Eye for Safety
Lauri Shay, a pre-school teacher from Mount Pleasant, said she is very safety conscious on her scooter. She tries to stick to backroads, rides only in daylight and limits her sojourns to local travel, mainly going from home to work, the grocery store and the beach. Still, she’s managed to pile 2,200 miles on her Keeway Venus scooter since August while spending as little as $2 a week on gas.
Shay got her scooter after a car wreck left her without a ride. Now, she hardly misses the car at all. “The scooter is great,” she said. “I can’t travel anywhere far, but I don’t have to pay car insurance or property taxes.”
Rich Lail of West Ashley got a moped because he had a suspended driver’s license (too many points) and was sick of taking the bus to classes at Trident Technical College in North Charleston. He’s logged 8,000 miles on his moped, which gets 75 miles to the gallon. Like Shay, Lail said he’s encountered very few problems with other drivers.
“From the perspective of other drivers, I understand that I’m a little slower than most traffic so I don’t try to block people or hog the road or anything like that,” Lail said.
Todd Simonis, a minister at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Mount Pleasant, has been riding a moped for more than two years, and he said he feels as safe as can be. Other motorists seem to accept mopeds on the road more readily than they do bicycles, he said. Moped riders just shouldn’t assume they hold a special kinship with their larger cousins on the road.
“Motorcyclists don’t like it when you wave to them,” he said. “We are in the lower caste system for sure.”
Simonis does offer waves to a local moped-riding nun he encounters. Unlike Simonis, she eschews the use of helmet. “Obviously,” he said with a chuckle. “She must have more faith than me.”
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