Slowed down: City puts brakes on moped freedom

You may have seen them. Or maybe just heard them. Noisy mopeds careering down Charlottesville's streets, riders with heads bare, sometimes a passenger hanging on for dear life.

Next time you spot these rogue riders, you can thank them– for inspiring lawmakers to update the city's regulations on mopeds.

"The police had been observing a number of issues in the community, particularly the safety issues," says Charlottesville assistant city attorney Lisa Kelley of the new regs.

Mopeds are defined as any two-wheeled motorized vehicle with an engine smaller than 50cc that cannot go above 30 mph. State law already requires that riders be at least 16 years old and abide by basic traffic laws. But the city, Kelly says, wanted to beef up the laws. What does it all mean?

For starters, moped riders– including those hip Vespa owners who zoom down city streets– must now don helmets and safety goggles or face fines up to $50. Only one rider is permitted per moped, unless it has a "dedicated" passenger seat with additional foot pegs.

The ordinance took effect on October 1, but the threat of ticketing didn't start until November 1, says Sgt. Ronnie Roberts of the Charlottesville police. And there's more. Come August 2005, all owners of such vehicles must register them with the city and pay a $25 license fee.

Woolen Mills resident Kevin Cox is delighted– particularly by the safety requirements.

"I don't want people on life support costing taxpayers money because they were too foolish to put on a helmet when they got on their moped," says Cox.

Some moped enthusiasts are less than thrilled.

"They tacked stuff onto the ordinance that I wasn't aware of," complains Vespa Charlottesville manager Dave Munn, who originally supported the changes but is somewhat annoyed by the final form of the ordinance.

In particular, Munn is irked by the $25 registration fee. "Isn't that a bit excessive?" he asks.

While Kelley points out that registration might help prevent moped thefts, Munn's not convinced. He laments that registration takes away one of the former perks of moped ownership: "A lot of people ride mopeds so they don't have to register them."

Many of those riders are teens who rely on their moped for transportation. State law already requires all moped drivers to be at least 16, but the state does not require a driver's license. The new city ordinance requires all city moped riders to carry a DMV-issued photo ID, something Kelley says will help police enforce the age limit.

Munn wonders if that's really going to work.

"I don't know how they're going to enforce these laws," says Munn. "Are they going to give kids tickets? Who's going to be held responsible for these 16-year-olds?"

Sgt. Roberts says youths could face juvenile court charges for violations, but he also urges parents to take a proactive role in their children's safety.

"It would behoove any parent to pick up a DMV book and make sure their child reads it," Roberts says, pointing out that kids who drive cars get extensive training in Driver's Ed.

"The whole objective here," he says, is to prevent injuries– particularly often debilitating head injuries.

When it comes to the safety segment of the ordinance, Munn doesn't argue with the wisdom of head protection. But he's still not happy.

"I think it's a good idea to wear a helmet," he says. "But I don't like having to regulate it. People should be allowed to make their own decisions."

However, Mike Hall of Jarman's Sportcycles says he's happy the city toughened its moped laws– particularly the head and eye protection aspects of the ordinance.

"You fall on asphalt at 30mph," he says, "it could be a serious injury." And as for goggles, he adds, "If a car throws up a rock, it could put your eye out."

Hall has no objection to the registration or picture ID requirements, either.

"The things they're putting in place," he says, "are pretty good."

Additional reporting by Vijith Assar