The Alexandria City Council has approved more stringent regulations for the operation of pocket motorbikes, restricting their use to public roads and to properly outfitted drivers older than 16.
In a unanimous vote June 21, the council approved an ordinance that reclassifies the small motorcycles as mopeds. Mopeds, under the new regulations, cannot be ridden faster than 30 mph or be operated by anyone younger than the state's legal driving age of 16, officials said. An operator is also required to carry identification, although not necessarily a driver's license.
In addition, the pocket bikes cannot have an engine displacement greater than 50 cubic centimeters, because they would then be designated as motorcycles, said council member Ludwig Gaines, who led the effort to change the city's code.
City law requires that every motorcyclist have a valid motorcycle operator's permit from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, a DMV-issued license plate and be equipped with all mandated safety devices, including a helmet.
Pocket bikes are typically only 15 to 18 inches tall and can reach speeds of up to 48 mph. They are so small that they are difficult to spot until they swing alongside or behind traditional vehicles, Gaines said.
"This had become a public safety issue," he said. "Without question, I've seen them around and with more frequency as the weather has gotten warmer. I feel confident with our ordinance, proud that we've done something about this issue."
In a memorandum to city leaders and authorities urging a change in the city code, Gaines wrote that parents often buy pocket bikes as recreational vehicles for their children. Pocket-bike prices usually range from $150 to $600, and adults also buy them as alternatives to automobiles to circumvent DMV licensing requirements, Gaines wrote in the March 16 memo.
"Their height and speed make them serious safety hazards for drivers, traditional motorcyclists and bicyclists, joggers and pedestrians," he wrote. And when they are driven on public sidewalks and parking lots, he continued, "they pose an added threat to pedestrians."
The new regulations, and the more precise authority they afford the city's police officers, were disseminated recently throughout the 307-member police department. Gaines said there will be a public relations blitz this summer to educate residents about the changes.
Sgt. Jamie Bartlett, commander of the police department's traffic unit, said he recently heard of someone asking police whether she could purchase a pocket bike for her 6-year-old son, an indication that the general public likely views the vehicles as toys.
"We're trying to urge people to use common sense and to not have kids riding around in these things," he said, adding that officers often hear complaints about the bikes being driven on sidewalks.
The ordinance, which became effective immediately after the council vote, makes it either a misdemeanor or a traffic infraction if someone is caught operating a pocket bike outside its intended scope, depending on the laws that are violated.
If it is driven as a moped but the size of its engine puts it in the category of a motorcycle, and if the driver is not properly outfitted with a helmet and other safety equipment and is driving in areas other than on the city's roads, the driver can be charged with a misdemeanor that carries a fine of up to $500.
And if the operator of a designated moped is younger than 16, is not carrying identification, drives faster than 30 mph or isn't wearing a helmet, a fine of no more than $50 can be imposed.
"The way we see it, the ordinance is a way to address this kind of emerging problem, which is hopefully more of a fad than anything else," Bartlett said. "And it allows us to regulate them better."
Similar restrictions are in place in Arlington County. Police spokesman Matt Martin said pocket bikes must either meet the state's definitions for mopeds or motorcycles.
In addition to the state rules on moped use (no faster than 30 mph, the operator must be at least 16 and carry identification), Arlington requires that the operator wear a face shield or goggles, or that the moped be equipped with a windshield, and that the operator and passenger wear helmets, Martin said. A violation is a traffic infraction punishable by a fine of up to $50.