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Changes may come to DC's scooter laws

It may have taken two arrests of a 64-year-old Georgetown woman, but there is hope on the horizon for those who want changes in the District's scooter regulations.


Photo by waitscm on Flickr.

DC law classifies all motor scooters as motorcycles, meaning that scooter owners must hold motorcycle licenses, wear a helmet, register their scooter, show proof of insurance, and pass a motorcycle skills test. Violating the law could land you in jail, as it did for Ann Goodman, though Goodman also appears to have deliberately flouted the law.

Many scooter owners want rules specifically for scooters, distinct from motorcycles. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the DC Council committee with oversight of motor vehicles, is sympathetic. "It shouldn't be a matter of police officers measuring the wheelbase or something like that," Cheh told NBC4 after learning of the arrests. "We should have clear categories."

Cheh said she "hopes to introduce a bill before the end of the year that puts scooters and motorcycles in different, easy-to-understand categories," according to the article.

"Hope" is an ambiguous word, so I reached out to Cheh's senior policy advisor William Handsfield to get more clarity on when we might see a piece of legislation.

"We've been thinking about it a lot, but I don't think there are any clear cut answers," Handsfield wrote in an email. "We'll be doing more on this topic soon, as the status quo is unsatisfactory."

Parking is biggest issue

While the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is "responsible for classifying vehicles and determining registration requirements," the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) sets parking rules based on those classifications, said Monica Hernandez, a communications specialist for DDOT, in an email.

In addition to evaluating the policies in place, DDOT is developing a program to create on-street scooter spaces, Hernandez wrote.

Handsfield mentioned that, while at DDOT, he headed a program which installed on-street bike racks around the city. "In the two years since we installed those racks, we've noticed that scooter owners often lock up there as well, which I think most would agree is preferential to scooters on the sidewalk," he wrote.

A quick search turned up articles about on-street racks being installed in numerous cities around the country, including New York and Seattle. In DC, it's illegal for scooters to park in bicycle racks.

In the comments on my earlier post, David C wrote,

We discussed the issue of scooters/bikes at a Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting. ... For parking we decided that we really didn't care if they parked at bike racks. We just need a lot more bike racks. But we don't think they should be riding in the bike lane.
The lack of parking options, as well as some confusing information, is the biggest issue with the current scooter laws, said Wellesley Scott, president of Modern Classics, a motorcycle and scooter store in Brentwood, and an authority on all things scooter.

"The problem is that... they're written by people who don't ride," Scott said. "Scooter theft in the city is a huge issue."

He proposed a sidewalk parking permit as a way to address the issue of scooter owners needing to secure their scooter while also providing a source of revenue for the city.

Scott doesn't support a wide-scale change to the laws on the books, and says that riders have to bear some blame, especially in Goodman's case. "People choose to read the laws now the way they want them to read," said Scott, an attorney. "I hear about customers getting arrested all the time."

He said that some prospective owners are deterred by the complexity and strictness of the laws, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. "What's important to me is to have people who are licensed and insured on the road," Scott said.

Jeremy Barr is a graduate journalism student at the University of Maryland. He previously worked in non-profit communications and has interned in politics on several occasions. In the last year and a half, he has lived in Adams Morgan, Logan Circle and Mount Vernon Square. Email him at jeremy.m.barr@gmail.com. 

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Isn't the < 50cc rule clear enough? Anything larger, and you're pretty motocycle-ish. (With more euro-style, naturally.)

by Julio on Aug 15, 2012 11:34 am • linkreport

As I scooter rider I believe that the only important issue needed to be addressed is the parking. DC should still require riders to have an M endorsement and have the scooter registered. I did it and did not find it all that difficult. It does take a little work but it helps to insure that riders know the laws.

by bran on Aug 15, 2012 11:42 am • linkreport

Meant to say "As a scooter rider..."

by bran on Aug 15, 2012 11:43 am • linkreport

Can someone explain to me why scooters can't park on the street like motorcycles? The articles always mention "theft" like it's obvious that it's easier to steal scooters than it is to steal motorcycles. Would you need to know how to pick a lock or hotwire a motor in order to steal either one?

by Tom Veil on Aug 15, 2012 11:46 am • linkreport

@Julio
Isn't the < 50cc rule clear enough? Anything larger, and you're pretty motocycle-ish. (With more euro-style, naturally.)

Except that's not the rule. See the previous post and the DMV document here.

To NOT be considered a motorcycle, a scooter must meet all of these:
1) wheels more than 16 inches in diameter
2) automatic transmission
3) piston displacement of not more than fifty (50) cubic centimeters
4) incapable of maximum speed of over 35 miles per hour on level ground
5) not more than one-half (1.5) brake horsepower (S.A.E. rating).

Most scooters fail to meet #5, and plenty fail #4 and #1

by MLD on Aug 15, 2012 11:47 am • linkreport

@Tom Veil
Can someone explain to me why scooters can't park on the street like motorcycles? The articles always mention "theft" like it's obvious that it's easier to steal scooters than it is to steal motorcycles. Would you need to know how to pick a lock or hotwire a motor in order to steal either one?

A scooter is way easier to steal because two people can pick it up and put it in a truck bed. Then you just take it elsewhere to deal with the rest. Also if the scooter doesn't have a steering/engine lock you can just wheel it away quite easily, especially the 50cc ones.

@bran
As I scooter rider I believe that the only important issue needed to be addressed is the parking. DC should still require riders to have an M endorsement and have the scooter registered. I did it and did not find it all that difficult. It does take a little work but it helps to insure that riders know the laws.

Agreed, registering a scooter and getting a motorcycle endorsement is not difficult. It's a motor vehicle, you should know what you're doing and know the law.

by MLD on Aug 15, 2012 11:57 am • linkreport

As someone who deals with scooters on a regular basis in a law enforcement capacity, I'm sympathetic to scooter riders having to jump through so many hoops. I'd have no problem with knocking the licensing requirements down to requiring a standard license.

However, the requirements to tag your scooter and carry insurance should remain. Virtually no scooter operators that I've stopped carry any form of insurance. Scooter operators do get in accidents, and unfortunately a lot of vehicle owners and scooter owners are screwed when it comes to accidents due to the lack of insurance by one of the parties.

Additionally, individuals riding stolen scooters recklessly is a huge problem where I patrol. If D.C. tightened requirements on registration (i.e. impounds on untagged/unregistered D.C. owned-scooters until they're registered and insured) and required registration for all scooters, it would be significantly easier to arrest, additionally charge, and prosecute recklessly driving individuals on stolen scooters.

by Officer Friendly on Aug 15, 2012 12:00 pm • linkreport

Thanks for this write up - there need to be some clear rules on where scooters can park on the sidewalk as they end up in all sorts of what I would consider inappropriate and inconvenient places. Can they be in tree boxes? Locked to tree boxes? Trees? Next to fire hydrants? Near doors to buildings? What if they are blocking the public right of way?

A simple solution would seem to be just painting some boxes on the sidewalk where it would be appropriate to park scooters and everything else is off limits but maybe I am misunderstanding the lock to something need here?

And parking enforcement needs to be able to ticket the scooters that end up in the wrong places but from my experience parking enforcement officers are usually hesitant to deal with any cars that are not strictly on the street and if you happen to find an officer who somewhat understands the actual laws they will tell you they don't deal with public space violations.

But a corollary to this unmentioned in the article is that most of the scooters that end up parked on the sidewalk get there after they are driven on the sidewalk, sometimes for significant distances, commingled with pedestrians.

And that needs to be an explicit no no going forward with a credible enforcement mechanism.

by TomQ on Aug 15, 2012 12:02 pm • linkreport

Oh come on, how can this be a problem? There is no need to reinvent the wheel here. Surely there are many states and counties that have figured out very satisfactory rules regarding scooters. Give the Italian DOT a call. The scooter is the major mode of transportation there.

Here are the rules from VA, MD, DE and PA:
http://www.dmv.state.va.us/webdoc/citizen/vehicles/moped.asp
http://www.mva.maryland.gov/Vehicle-Services/REG/scooter.htm
http://www.dmv.de.gov/services/vehicle_services/reg/ve_reg_moped.shtml
http://www.dmv.state.pa.us/registration/scooters.shtml

Pick one, adapt to other DC rules, done.

by Jasper on Aug 15, 2012 12:07 pm • linkreport

Scooter insurance is also dirt cheap, and you need to have it to register your vehicle.

by MLD on Aug 15, 2012 12:13 pm • linkreport

DC needs spots on every block for motorcycles and scooters.

by Redline SOS on Aug 15, 2012 12:41 pm • linkreport

This:

"Scott doesn't support a wide-scale change to the laws on the books, and says that riders have to bear some blame, especially in Goodman's case. "People choose to read the laws now the way they want them to read," said Scott, an attorney. "I hear about customers getting arrested all the time."

He said that some prospective owners are deterred by the complexity and strictness of the laws, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. "What's important to me is to have people who are licensed and insured on the road," Scott said."

As a motorcycle rider and former scooter owner, scooter riders need to be licensed and insured. Riding a scooter is not much different from a motorcycle except that in most cases you don't shift on a scooter and the riding position is different. The risks are actually greater on a scooter because they don't make much noise and are harder to detect in traffic, and the little wheels mean they handle like shit.

I could support a change to the license process and have a separate scooter endorsement/test. The scooter test could leave out the questions about shifting and clutch operation and have more questions about avoiding potholes/obstacles on the roadway.

This woman was stopped because she had no helmet on and wasn't licensed. Riding a scooter without a helmet is just stupid. She said she's going to stop riding her scooter until the laws are changed. Why not just go take the test at the DMV and get the M endorsement? It's not that hard. Then again, if she had half a brain she probably would be wearing a helmet.

Also, a lot of DC scooter owners flout the law like this, pretend they're from VA or MD and not register their scooter or take their DC tags off when they park on the sidewalk.

by brookland_rez on Aug 15, 2012 12:57 pm • linkreport

@Tom Veil,

Both motorcycles and scooters get stolen routinely. Scooters are easier because most only weigh about 200lbs. A couple of strong guys can easily pick one up and load it onto a truck and take it away.

Sportbikes weigh about 400lbs and get stolen a lot too. I've had several friends have theirs stolen.

A big cruiser bike would be the hardest because they weigh as much as 800 or more pounds.

The solution to this is to install a ring or hook into the motorcycle parking spot to allow a scooter or motorcycle owner to lock up if they so desire.

by brookland_rez on Aug 15, 2012 1:02 pm • linkreport

@brookland_rez. Indeed. My BMW comes with a place under the seat for a big-ole U lock. It would be a boon to scooter and motorcycle riders to have dedicated, lockable parking spots, but I'm not holding my breath. In Europe it's a common practice to park both scooters and motorcycles on the sidewalk. In NYC, the practice is tolerated (if not strictly legal) as long as you're not obnoxious about it, and don't block anyone. Covers can help (out of sight, out of mind) and you direct thieves to easier targets.

For the record, I've had two motorcycles stolen in DC. :( Certain models attract thieves because they can be easily parted out, parts can be sold to unscrupulous repair shops and these parts (aside from the engine and frame) are untraceable. If the cops don't find it in 3-4 hours (via Lo-Jack) it's likely in pieces and gone forever.

by Paul on Aug 15, 2012 1:45 pm • linkreport

@Paul,

When I park mine, I typically put it at the end of the block in between where the last car can legally park and the crosswalk. Typically there is enough room there without encroaching on either the car parking or the crosswalk. I've never gotten a ticket for doing that in all the time I've been riding.

I also park it where I can watch over it and don't typically keep it parked for too long.

by brookland_rez on Aug 15, 2012 1:55 pm • linkreport

I don't have a lot of sympathy for people who are simply too lazy (or too ill-informed) to comply with minimal licensing requirements and pass a motorcycle riding test at the DMV. Smacks of the rules-are-for-other-people mindset that is all too common in DC. Riding a motorized two-wheeler comes with a set of responsibilities, if not for your own safety, then for those with whom you share the streets.

When I took the riding test at DC DMV, (in 1999) it was ridiculously easy, on a 750cc motorcycle. On an itty-bitty scooter, it should be a piece of cake. Oh, and there's a Mickey Mouse written exam. There's a sample test on-line. The biggest pain with DMV is you must have an appointment and wait several weeks. Or pass a motorcycle-safety course in Maryland or Virginia. That will waive the DC requirement for a riding test.

by Paul on Aug 15, 2012 1:56 pm • linkreport

A kid in my neighborhood (probably 12 or 13 years old) has one of those mini-motor bikes (its actually a mini-4 wheeler) which he zips around in with total impunity. Across lawns, weaving in and out of traffic, parked cars, through parks, sidewalks, whatever he wants. Never once have I seen an MPD officer even raise an eyebrow, even when he is doing this right in front of them. Needless to say he doesn't wear a helmet and when sitting on the thing is only about 3 feet, at most, off the ground making him nearly impossible to see from a car.

For a small machine the thing is incredibly loud, very fast, and belches out exhaust. Its like an old leaf blower with wheels. I know that other cities have cracked down on these things but I guess not in DC.

by dcdriver on Aug 15, 2012 3:20 pm • linkreport

Licensing is a definite. They could stand to improve the testing as well given that all you are required to do to pass is a figure 8 without putting your feet on the ground. Parking does need to be address. Many other cities have provided scooter/motorcycle specific parking (with secure locking facility) and the cost would be minimal. Could be offset with a $35 annual scooter/motorcycle parking permit akin to the residential parking permit, provide continued revenue to the city and encourage people to ride instead of drive giving them access to parking all over the city instead of spending a dollar for 15 minutes of parking in a car. This would help relieve parking congestion in high volume areas. I believe Chinatown already has said parking in front of the verizon center on 7th. Encouraging riding reduces congestion and parking issues, so long as everyone is licensed and insured. Even 50 cc should have to be licensed given that most of us cant get out of second gear anyway and do not move faster than a 50 cc anyway.

by Taylor on Aug 15, 2012 4:05 pm • linkreport

@dcdriver,

It sounds like a 2 stroke machine. I've seen everything on the streets of NE- ATVs, dirt bikes, etc. I saw MPD chase one through my alley last summer so they do chase sometimes. But overall it doesn't seem like MPD does a whole lot.

by brookland_rez on Aug 15, 2012 4:27 pm • linkreport

@brookland_rez, If I remember the legislative history, cracking down on mini-bikes and unlicensed dirt bikes (no lights, turn signals, horn, etc.) was cited as one reason for the fairly broad definition of "motorcycle" in the DC regulations. Of course, most juvenile offenders piloting these contraptions are simple catch-and-release, so you have to wonder how piling on motor-vehicle offenses (no license, no insurance, no tags etc., etc.) really helps. One reason DC got rid of bicycle registration was that it was widely ignored, but selectively used to pile on charges for people stopped for other reasons by police.

by Paul on Aug 15, 2012 4:48 pm • linkreport

I am intimately (unfortunately) familiar with the issue of ATVs and dirt bikes being ridden on the streets of my neighborhood, often recklessly, without proper registration, and by children (the teens are actually the worst when it comes to being reckless). MPD's general policy is not to chase them in most circumstances, as that creates an even greater hazard as they ride even faster and more recklessly to avoid the police, even going over sidewalks and through parks. I can understand how this would shake out, but that policy seems to be changing a bit in my neighborhood. I have seen several police officers give chase to the worst offenders (if they're speeding, blowing through stop signs, and riding over sidewalks to begin with, there's not much worse they can do, and at least the police lights/sirens give a warning to pedestrians and other motorists). However, what has been universally effective is informing the police where these vehicles are originating from. Whenever I hear the engines roaring through the neighborhood, I find it a good time to take my dog for a walk. If I can ferret out the address where they're coming from, or spot a vehicle with the carrier hooked up, the police will stake it out briefly and nab them when the stop to switch riders or whatnot. They can and will impound the vehicle, and often will charge any adults present, even arresting a few in the last couple of months.

If you know where that kid lives, dcdriver, I'd call the police when you hear him riding around and tell them his address. That will likely be the most effective way to solve your problem.

by Ms. D on Aug 15, 2012 10:02 pm • linkreport

Otherwise, for true scooters, it seems obvious that some reform is needed to the laws and provisions for these riders. I don't really have a position on getting the M endorsement, it seems easy enough, but the unintended consequences of that policy might be problematic. Some internet research indicated that scooter insurance is pretty cheap, so I agree that getting that is a no-brainer and good public policy. Helmets are also a no-brainer for anyone who has half a brain, and also good public policy. But I know one of the questions I answered for my life insurance is whether I had a motorcycle license. Not a motorcycle, even the license would have been enough to jack up my rates. A special scooter endorsement might solve that, or it might be wise to allow people over, say, 21 to ride a scooter with just a standard driver's license.

While I loathe the people who carelessly park their scooters on the sidewalk in such a way that it disrupts foot traffic (while I rarely see bicyclists do this, when they do, it annoys me as well), I do understand the need to lock up a scooter, as it's easy pickings for thieves. So I'd be really happy with providing some parking with racks to lock up to. Since the same parking could be used by bikes, scooters, and motorcycles, it's not too much of an imposition. Overall, I think it would be ideal if it were easier for businesses to convert a street parking spot into bike/scooter/motorcycle parking with racks. If the business that benefits from those customers thinks they're providing a necessary amenity to their customers, that's a pretty solid argument, IMHO.

by Ms. D on Aug 15, 2012 10:13 pm • linkreport

The law needs to be overhauled, and should go farther than just defining scooters. We need to decide what to do with electric bikes, electric-assist bikes, gasoline-assist bikes, electric scooters, electric motorcycles etc... There are so many new, electric vehicles hitting the market that definitions that rely on pistons or displacement will quickly become out-of-date. Who can use bike lanes? Who can use trails? Who can park where? Who needs plates and licenses? Etc...

by David C on Aug 15, 2012 10:59 pm • linkreport

@Ms. D,

If a life insurance company deems riding a motorcycle or having an endorsement an extraordinary risk, I don't think riding a scooter and flouting the regulations is going to be in the best interest of the insurance company or the rider.

In fact, the opposite. If someone is riding a scooter with no training or endorsement, the rider's life is at greater risk. Endorsements and rider training exist for a very good reason. The training teaches you how to be safe on the road with vehicles that are much bigger than you.

by brookland_rez on Aug 16, 2012 12:42 pm • linkreport

Bummer, while I registered my Vespa 200 in 2005 and had insurance etc., I used to lock it up directly adjacent my office building. It was one of the wonderful things about living in the city: having free parking and a 10 minute commute. All good things must, MUST come to an end.

by NE John on Sep 26, 2013 8:50 am • linkreport

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