Powered scooters apparently illegal in city
TRAFFIC CODE: Officer says they can be used only on private property.
By PETER PORCO
Anchorage Daily News
(Published: December 7, 2003)
You may have seen them last summer buzzing along city streets and park trails, motorized scooters powered by batteries or small gasoline engines at speeds of up to 25 mph.
There's little to them -- a skateboardlike platform on two small wheels with a straight-up handlebar and sometimes a seat. But the scooters made noisy appearances in residential neighborhoods and even on major byways like International Airport Road, according to local police.
With so many zipping around, who could imagine they'd be illegal?
Yet motorized scooters cannot be ridden legally anywhere in the Municipality of Anchorage except on private property whose owner allows it, said Anchorage Police Sgt. Nancy Reeder, supervisor of the city's new traffic enforcement unit.
"This is something old in our traffic code," Reeder said recently. "I looked at it this summer. ... Scooters are limited and have been for years. But wow. They're all over the place."
And being sold widely too, often with holiday trappings. It's not against the law to sell them, so you can find them at Costco Wholesale, Toys "R" Us, Wal-Mart, Anchorage Yamaha, Fred Meyer, Schuck's Auto Supply and other stores.
Confusion, ignorance and old-fashioned marketing explain why an instrument that is essentially unusable in the city is nevertheless available here, according to Reeder.
"Citizens say, 'Why are they selling them?' " she said. "That's free enterprise." Reeder cited other things that are illegal to use but that get sold nonetheless: tinted windows, for example, or covers for automobile taillights and license plates.
"A lot of it is just ignorance of the law," Reeder said.
One scooter distributor in town, however, says Reeder is wrong. The motorized two-wheelers, including the Go-Ped that he markets to several outlets, are lighter and slower than bicycles and are "not illegal in Anchorage," said Glenn Curtis, who also pilots a private jet.
"The only people who think they're illegal is the Police Department," Curtis said. "I've been to court with them already."
Curtis appeared in local court as an expert witness in a case last summer of a boy ticketed for operating the scooter as an unlicensed vehicle, he said. The prosecutor eventually dropped the case, and the boy went home free with his scooter.
That shows that they're legal, Curtis said.
Bruce Roberts, the municipal prosecutor, said he dropped the case only because "we didn't have the resources to fight it," he said. The judge raised a bunch of secondary issues that required research, and no one was around to do it.
"It was a question of whether the kid was required to have a license, whether it was a motor vehicle or not. He was underage, his mother was there," Roberts said. "I said: 'What are we doing over here? We have criminal cases to prosecute.' " So he said good riddance.
But the scooters are indeed illegal, Roberts said.
"The whole thing has been characterized as dismissed, but it was not dismissed," he said. "If he wants to make them legal, go to the (Anchorage) Assembly or go to (the state Legislature in) Juneau."
New York City; Chicago; Appleton, Wis.; Pekin, Ill.; and other towns and cities across the country, and in the United Kingdom, are dealing with the same issues since the relatively inexpensive motorized scooters began to surge in popularity, chiefly this year.
They range in cost roughly from $100 to $500, some marketed directly for youths, others for adults.
"The scooters became popular so fast there was no time to put laws in place," said Ronny North, the tech support chief for Bladez, an Irvine, Calif., company that makes scooters and other recreational products.
Several store managers and company officials, including North, said they did not know the scooters were against the law in Anchorage.
"It has never come up as an issue," said Chris Reed, district manager for Schuck's Auto Supply, which has been selling battery- and gas-powered models for less than a year.
Reed said he knew the scooters could not be taken on the roads but thought they were OK on sidewalks and trails. In any case, he said, the scooters' packaging tells the buyer to be aware of local laws because the items are illegal in some communities.
Costco sells a gas-powered scooter, the Moby 33, made by Bladez. The price is $450, and the Moby 33, made especially for Costco by Bladez, is a top seller, North said.
"Costco is a major dealer for us," he added.
A Costco official in Issaqua, Wash., said the company was unaware the scooters could not be driven on streets and parks in Anchorage.
"We rely on the vendor to provide us the local legislation," said Dave Greek, Costco's national sporting goods buyer. "The manufacturer, we hold them responsible for knowing the applicable laws."
North said confusion arises because the scooters are legal in some parts of the country.
"In California, a couple cities here and there frown upon them but don't take action," he said. "They're 90 percent legal in California. It's a real gray area."
Most localities that regulate the scooters, North added, seem to allow the quieter (and slower) battery-powered models on the streets so long as they're confined to curb-side bike lanes.
"Everybody frowns on them on sidewalks," North said. "Usually it's a gas scooter getting a ticket. It seems to be more of a noise thing."
The safety of the scooters, particularly when they are driven in automobile traffic, is a major concern. The injury rate -- 5,000-6,000 emergency room visits stemming from use of motorized scooters nationwide each year -- has remained level for the past few years, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Legislatures in several states have begun looking at the problems associated with the scooters, but in Alaska, apparently the only motorized scooter that has been addressed by the Legislature is the Segway, according to the office of Sen. John Cowdery of Anchorage, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.
The Segway is a battery-powered, gyroscope-stabilized "human transporter." In summer 2002, even before the $5,000 Segways were being marketed, a new state law allowed Alaska municipalities to regulate them for sidewalk use.
Alaska became one of several states to make that exception. But in Anchorage, the Segway's legality remains in dispute.
Reeder, the Anchorage police sergeant, says the Segway "falls into the same category as the scooter" and is therefore illegal except on private property.
"A lot of people have gone out and bought them this summer because they've been told things," Reeder said. "I tell them they cannot be taken anywhere, including the street."
But Municipal Attorney Fred Boness said the Segway, whose top speed is about 13 mph, is indeed legal in Anchorage. "The state statute allows them to be driven ... on trails and sidewalks," Boness said.
Reeder hopes the Anchorage Assembly will address the issue by next summer.
Anchorage police have issued citations to riders of motorized scooters, though the question of how many citations is difficult to answer, police spokesman Ron McGee said. Reeder knows of at least one scooter that police have impounded. Another scooter driver was cited last summer for a traffic violation after colliding with a vehicle, she said.
That person was riding along International Airport Road and crossed Fairbanks Street as the automobile driver was turning into Fairbanks from International, Reeder said. The driver of the vehicle "never expected someone to come off the sidewalk onto the street," she said.
The scooter driver was injured.
The primary tack officers are taking, Reeder said, is to give a warning the first time they stop someone who is riding a scooter where he or she shouldn't be. "I directed officers this summer, basically at this point, because it's becoming such a huge issue, the first time, talk to the people, explain the law, that it's illegal," she said. "Education first."
Just befreind the little guy. You could be kind of like his Uncle Buck.