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Will S.C. lawmakers lick ‘liquorcycle’ exemptions?

By Robert Behre, The Post and Courier

South Carolina still provides one legal option for driving drunk, and it’s unclear if state lawmakers will put a cork in it this year.

The state’s current moped laws are a lax and confusing hodgepodge that essentially allow those riding motorized scooters with smaller engines to operate as freely as bicyclists.

 

As a result, thousands of moped drivers travel the state’s roads without a license or insurance. The state has no way of tracking how many are on the roads, though most in law enforcement say their experience shows they’re getting more popular. The state does track moped fatalities, which hit a record high last year.

State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, said the General Assembly has considered multiple moped bills for the past six years, but a current bill combines many of those reform ideas.

The bill has passed the House, but its path through the Senate has been delayed by debate over a roads bill. Grooms said he hopes the Senate will act, but there will be opposition.

“It’s crazy that you could be drunk as a skunk and blow past a sitting Highway Patrolman … and he can’t do anything,” Grooms said. “That has to be fixed.”

 

‘People have been killed’
The moped bill has two primary sponsors from the Lowcountry, Reps. William Crosby and Joe Daning, Republicans from North Charleston and Goose Creek, respectively.

Crosby said he had a friend whose car was struck by a moped several years ago. The driver, who wasn’t required to have insurance, fled the scene.

“They can have an accident, hit a car, and get up and run away,” Crosby said. “Nobody knows who the moped belongs to.”

But Crosby said his primary motivation to support the bill stemmed from conversations with law enforcement officers, such as North Charleston Police Deputy Chief Coyle Kinard.

“I’ve been to collisions where people have been killed on mopeds,” Kinard said. “It’s not that I’m really truly against them, but something has to be done to make it safe so these people aren’t getting in collisions and losing their lives.”

Daning described his legislation as a safety bill that has as much in it for moped drivers as for others on the road.

The bill not only requires mopeds to be registered and licensed with the state but also requires their operators to carry liability insurance, to wear reflective vests at night and to operate in the farthest right lane except when making a left turn.

Moped accidents have been increasing in recent years, and state lawmakers could pass a moped safety bill this year. Charleston police investigate a moped accident in 2012.
Enlarge Moped accidents have been increasing in recent years, and state lawmakers could pass a moped safety bill this year. Charleston police investigate a moped accident in 2012. 

“I see it as a safety bill,” Daning said, “safety mainly for the folks that ride a moped and secondarily for the people who come up on them on the highway.”

Just last week, Leroy Snipe, 61, of West Ashley was struck and killed on the Cosgrove Avenue bridge around 11 p.m. by a driver who fled the scene.

The investigation is ongoing, but Snipe apparently had operable lights and was wearing a reflective safety vest, as the new law would require. However, the crash report found that Snipe was traveling in the left lane, which the new law would prohibit except for moped drivers making left turns.

The original bill would have limited mopeds to streets with speed limits of 35 mph or less, though they still could have crossed highways with higher speed limits. But some lawmakers objected, saying that restriction would prevent some from using mopeds to commute to work.

The bill’s latest version allows mopeds on streets and highways with speed limits up to 55 mph. The Cosgrove Avenue bridge has a posted limit of 50 mph. Essentially, only interstates are off limits.

“I did not agree with that,” Daning said of allowing mopeds on faster roads, “but I lost that fight.”

 

Dealers disagree
Some dealers support the bill, including Jim Wertman, owner of Carolina Honda in Columbia.

Aside from placing new requirements on mopeds, the bill also would clear up exactly what a moped is — and isn’t.

Wertman said if a scooter goes more than 30 mph, its rider runs the risk of getting ticketed for operating it without the proper registration and insurance — even if its engine size is small enough to be considered a moped. Those tickets can add up to more than $700 in fines from a single stop.

“I don’t want to take that kind of risk, and I don’t want to put the consumer at that kind of risk,” Wertman said.

The bill is also supported by AAA Carolinas, which would like to see its members protected from accidents where moped drivers are at fault but have no insurance.

“We’re also concerned that the current law allows you to drive a moped drunk,” AAA lobbyist Michael Covington said. “You can’t get a DUI on a moped, which is utterly ridiculous.”

Jorge Daez of Moped City, a West Ashley moped shop, said the bill started out well but “got a little crazy.”

“The premise that people shouldn’t be able to drive mopeds drunk is a very good one,” he said. But he questioned the bill’s provisions to require reflective vests.

“Why make moped riders do things that bicyclists don’t even do?” he said. “If they enforced the laws on the books, I don’t think we’d have gotten to this point.”

 

What the bill would do
Covington said the common stereotype on mopeds is they’re for people who have gotten DUIs and can’t drive anymore — many call them “liquorcycles” for that reason.

“It is a stereotype, but there’s an element of truth,” he said.

But Wertman said he thinks that stereotype has been overblown and that most choose them because they’re more economical and easier to park.

“Everybody thinks that the people who are riding mopeds are people who have lost their license from DUI, and that’s the farthest thing from the truth,” Wertman said. “I’d say it’s 20 percent at the max. The majority of them are low-income people and college kids.”

Sen. John Scott, D-Columbia, said he hasn’t seen the latest version of the moped bill, but it might face a fight.

“I can almost assure you it probably still won’t get out of the Senate. The rural legislators have a number of persons in the rural community, and if it weren’t for that (mopeds), they couldn’t get to work at all,” he said. “They may never have had a driver’s license.”

While the bill’s failure still could allow moped drivers to operate under the influence, Scott said the same concern applies to golf cars. “A lot of them ride drunk playing golf,” he said. “The challenge is, how do we deal with that?”

But the bill’s backers say they’re not trying to take mopeds off the road, just trying to make them safer,

“They’re a good means of transportation, a needed means of transportation for a lot of people,” Daning said. “I’m not trying to take that away from them.”

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