Craig Doty was happy to be visiting the moped mecca of the Pacific Northwest this past July. A convert to the two-wheeled cause in Connecticut, where he recently finished grad school, Doty had come to Seattle for a rally arranged by the Mosquito Fleet, a local chapter of the nationwide Moped Army. Counting almost 50 members, most clustered in Ballard, the Mosquitoes favor vintage imported European mopeds—popularized during the OPEC crunch of the mid-'70s—made by Puch, Sachs, Peugeot, and Tomos. They're often lined up like so many miniature metallic ponies outside Ballard's Tin Hat and Eastlake's Mars Bar, the current gathering point for Monday-evening socials and group rides.
One night Doty was riding a borrowed Puch north along Ballard's Third Avenue Northwest to the crash pad where he was staying with some fellow 'ped heads. Doty remembers indicating his imminent left turn with a hand signal (blinkers on mopeds are rare and not required by Washington state law), braking (lights are required, and he had them), then glancing back over his shoulder (mirrors: strictly optional).
Then, he recalls, "The car was just on top of me and nailed me." His friends inside the house heard the crash, but the motorist sped away, leaving Doty on the pavement with an open fracture of his left leg and a broken right ankle, as well as several missing teeth and facial damage. Fortunately, Doty was wearing a helmet (mandated by law).
"I think it saved my life," he says. "I was lucky enough to have [health] insurance." Even so, his out-of-pocket medical expenses are over $7,000. That's money he might've collected from the hit-and-run motorist during the six weeks he spent in bed with pins in one leg and a cast on the other. Only now is he starting to walk without a cane.
Let's say, like Doty, you're young, educated, and urban. You're starting a career, probably have student loans, and the cost of housing in marquee cities like Seattle is exorbitant. Owning a car is also expensive; not to mention the hassle of finding a parking space on, say, Capitol Hill. You don't commute on the freeway from the suburbs or shuttle the kids to soccer practice, so what's the ideal solo vehicle for congested streets? Mopeds and scooters.
Yet Seattle streets haven't been so friendly to the Mosquitoes, according to Kevin Barrans, the group's co-founder and proprietor of Seattle Mopeds in Wallingford. "I've been hit about three to four times in the last four years," he says. "We're forced by law to ride out in traffic." (Bicyclists tend to hug the curb and let cars pass.) "It's not unheard of for someone to ride us off the road. It happens all the time." National statistics for motorcycle accidents and fatalities support this claim, also grimly footnoted by the hit-and-run death of a Tacoma moped rider this past August.
Washington state uses the term "moped" for all bikes with an engine size of not more than 50 cubic centimeters (a measure of its power) and a top speed not to exceed 30 mph. The term encompasses vintage mopeds with pedals as well as small, new-school scooters with the same engine specs. Unlike motorcycles, these affordable machines don't require a special driver's license endorsement, making them especially popular with younger riders—no special test, no extra fees.
According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, scooter sales have increased almost 20 percent this year—a rate almost double that of motorcycles. A decade ago, fewer than 10,000 scooters were sold in the United States. This year's projections are more than 10 times that number. Seattle is the nation's second biggest scooter market, trailing only student-rich Boston, according to Victor Voris, manager of a Vespa dealership in Belltown.
Good used mopeds can be had on eBay and Craigslist for $500 or less; a new model might cost triple that amount. A new Vespa, the Rolls of mopeds, can sell for $2,000 to $6,000, close to Kia territory. But Voris puts it this way: "It's not, 'I can't afford a car.' It's, 'I can't park a car.'"
Yet here's the critical question: Are moped and scooter riders more or less at risk tooling around the city than their big-wheeled brethren on the highway? Nationwide, per the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA), two-wheeled motorized fatalities are up about 100 percent from 1995 to 2005; injuries have risen by over 50 percent during the same period. In King County, the Washington State Department of Health reports 10-year increases (through 2004) of 53 percent and 18 percent, respectively.
But deaths for motorized bikes under 500 cc (a classification that includes all mopeds and scooters) were 31 percent less in 2004 than in 1994, NHTSA says. For larger bikes, deaths were up 57 percent in the 501–1,000 cc category, and 143 percent for bikes 1,001 cc and above. Thus, smaller means slower, and slower means safer.
NHTSA data also show the number of motorized bike deaths is up 10 percent for riders age 30 and younger, while 40-and-over fatalities have spiked a shocking 241 percent in 2004 versus 1994. Which is not to say there's no danger in being young, broke, and reckless; it's just apparently safer than being older and affluent enough to buy the chopper of your dreams. (Much has been written about baby boomers treating themselves to a Harley, then crashing the overpowered hog when they find their reaction time isn't what it used to be.)
Voris advocates a bold, confident style of riding that not all entry-level types may possess: "You will get no respect from the cars. You need to think of yourself as a car."
The same sentiment prevails over beers with Barrans, Brett Walker, and other members of the Mosquito Fleet during a recent Monday meet-up at the Mars Bar. As a Mosquito member spins vinyl (no iPods here), Brendan Barrans, brother of Kevin, describes being hit head-on by a left- turning car that didn't see him. His moped was crushed, but he somewhat miraculously barrel-rolled over the hood and landed on his feet, unscathed. "It's nerve-racking," says Walker of the constant traffic vigilance required on city streets.
Outside the bar, a row of some 20 mopeds adorns the curb, ranging in era from the mid-'60s to '70s. Club members, mostly male and mid-20s, regularly adjourn for smokes and to kick one another's tires. It's like a well-mannered junior varsity gathering of Hells Angels (many Mosquitoes attend Ballard's Mars Hill Church), where everyone has a day job in information systems rather than dealing meth to make ends meet.
Kevin Barrans patiently explains to me that a moped has only a throttle and brakes—no clutch like a motorcycle or automatic transmission like a scooter. "First gear is essentially your legs," he says. And when the machines start sputtering up a steep hill, the pedals also lend extra power. As a result, as any city bicyclist knows, you learn to plan your routes accordingly.
While Mosquito members complain that the Seattle Police Department hasn't taken the Doty case seriously, the Traffic Collision Investigation Squad says it's treating the incident as a potential felony. Detective Bruce Menne says they identified the car (a red Volvo), gathered statements, bagged up bits of the broken headlights, and tried at the time to get TV and radio coverage for citizens to be on the lookout for the car. All of which has yielded exactly nothing.
"It's inactivated at this time," says Menne of the case.