Buzzing like angry hornets, the mini-motorcycles or pocket-bike craze is sweeping from California to New York. These miniature motorcycles copy the racing looks of Honda, Kawasaki and Harley, but with a tiny stance under two feet and weighing less than 50 pounds. Powered by a two-stroke lawnmower-type engine, they have a pull-cord starter. The price tag starts at about $200, but can go as high as $3,000. The lower price models top out at about 30 mph, but the pricier models can hit 70 mph. Originally used for racing in Europe and Japan, these "pocket rockets" are appearing on urban streets with young male drivers scrunched on the seat just inches from the pavement zipping through traffic.
Unlike full-size motorcycles, the mini-cycles usually lack safety features including brake lights, red rear reflectors, mirrors, turn signals, horn and approved tires. They are not regulated by any federal motor vehicle safety standards because they are sold as toys. Police are treating the machines as everything from motorcycles to mopeds to motorized toys. So far, a legal definition of the vehicles is elusive and local and state jurisdictions are scrambling to set regulations for them.
The "minimoto" craze may be new, but minibikes have been around since 1960. Because of their short wheelbase and low profile, they are relatively unstable and are hard for other motorists to see, according to the Center for Disease Control. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that 2,000 mini bike riders ended their ride in an emergency room in 2002. Since 1984 the Commission has noted 24 deaths involving minibikes and trailbikes. Half of those who died were children under 14 years of age. This year a 19-year-old, trying to elude police, was killed on his pocket bike in New York State. New York City is considering legislation that would ban pocket bikes from the Big Apple.
Obviously, they can be dangerous to their drivers and pedestrians and other motorists, but they can also be a lot of fun. Here are some safety tips from the manufacturers and police departments that can help provide a safe ride.
* Mini "pocket bikes" are intended for use by persons aged 12 or above.
* Operation of these vehicles is governed by local and state law. Check out the requirements in your area before you buy a pocket bike. Otherwise, you may find that the city fathers have outlawed them for use except in your own cul-de-sac.
* Always wear an approved helmet, elbow and kneepads, which will protect you from laceration in case of a crash or fall.
* Do not operate the pocket bike at night. It is not equipped for operation in the dark or low-light condition. Since it has no head- or taillights, it may not be easily visible to pedestrians or other vehicles.
* Ride only on smooth hard surface. Gas-powered pocket bikes are not designed for off-road use. Exercise caution when rolling over obstacles.
* Do not carry additional persons or items. Do not put additional load on the pocket bike by pulling or towing anything.
* Your insurance policy may not provide coverage for accidents involving this product. Contact your insurance agent for more information.
* Remember, you are sharing the road with much larger, faster vehicles, so ride defensively.
* Wet weather impairs traction, braking, and visibility. The risk of accident is dramatically increased in wet and icy conditions.