In many places around the world, there are two classes of scooters: those below 50cc and those above 50cc. For scooters and mopeds below 50cc that meet certain other standards (such as making less than 2 hp or being capable of only 34 mph) owners aren’t required to get a separate motorcycle endorsement on their drivers license to operate these vehicles on the road. In some places, these sub-50cc bikes don’t even have to be titled or registered.
Well in South Australia, a new road safety initiative aims to close that loophole. The new regulations would require owners of small scooters to take mandatory safety classes and have licensing requirements similar to regular motorcycles. With 5,000 registered 50cc machines in South Australia, that’s a big shift for a lot of people, but I applaud the idea.
Here in the states, I consistently get the impression that a lot of people buy 50cc scooters specifically because of the license gap. Sure, you can park a 50cc like a bicycle in most states, but that’s a separate subject that I’ll come back to. Getting a motorcycle endorsement is, for some, too high a hurdle in purchasing a larger-displacement scooter that would actually be a more practical fit for where most people live and travel. So they buy a 50cc because it’s more convenient and less expensive. The problem is really one of safety, and on several fronts.
Firstly, the performance of a restricted 50cc scooter is too little to be safely operated in most American cities, in my opinion. Outside of residential areas, the speed limit in most American urban areas is at least 35 mph. If a scooter’s top speed is 34 mph, that makes it all but impossible for a 50cc scooter to realistically keep in the flow of traffic. This forces riders to either adopt far-right lane positions like a bicycle, or to simply be in the way of cars, which as we all know, doesn’t endear us to our car driving counterparts. That’s a level of exposure that personally, I’m uncomfortable with. Any two-wheeler should be able to operate like a car and own its part of the road.
Sure, there are places like college campuses and residential areas where 34 mph is plenty, but I think that for the average 50cc buyer who is going that route simply so that they don’t have to go through the minor hassle of getting their motorcycle endorsement, they’ve got an unrealistic expectation for what their scooter is truly capable of and what riding it in traffic will really be like. This puts them in unnecessary danger and frankly, that’s not a fun way to ride.
Second, the lack of licensing for 50cc scooters and mopeds means a complete lack of required rider education. It’s not as though they cover small scooter and moped riding in driver’s ed. Yet a standard driving license is enough to legally operate these smaller, powered two-wheelers on the road right along with two-ton cars and 170 mph sport motorcycles. This doesn’t make any sense to me. Speed is only one factor of safety. Just because my 50cc scooter can’t do 100 mph doesn’t mean I don’t face most if not all of the same dangers on the street. When that car driver isn’t paying attention and makes a left turn in front of me at an intersection, my scooter’s top speed doesn’t mean a thing. If I low slide in some gravel going around a turn, I’m in just as much danger of breaking my collar bone and getting thoroughly scraped up. I still need to be wearing full gear and a real helmet.
Getting my motorcycle permit requires me to demonstrate a basic knowledge of riding safety. Getting my full endorsement requires me to either take a rider safety course, or be able to pass the rider skills test at the DMV. These are not difficult bars to clear and in most states, it costs less than $30 to get started with a permit. Sure, there’s a time investment, and I’m looking at a few hundred dollars for a full-on rider course, but taken against the risk of just strolling into traffic completely unprepared, these are small fees to pay. What’s it worth to you to stay alive and actually enjoy riding your scooter?
The thing is, I know I’m preaching to the choir in one sense. Those of you who already ride know that the street is a dangerous place that must be taken seriously. The problem is that new, prospective riders don’t have this understanding. Yet they can walk into any scooter shop, plop down a credit card and ride away on a 50cc scooter completely free and legal. I think if they understood the real nature of the risk they’re taking, they might approach it differently.
It’s often difficult to balance people’s freedom to be stupid against a societal obligation to require smart things from everyone. Yet the precedent already exists for this. I can’t drive a car without a license and insurance, and in order to get that license I had to demonstrate a basic ability to safely operate a car. That requirement also already exists for bikes larger than 50cc. I think it’s simply time to close that gap. I should have to demonstrate, at a basic level, that I know what I’m doing before I just haul out into the street on a 50cc scooter or moped. The easiest way to do that is to require me to be licensed on any powered two-wheeler. Here in Illinois, that’s exactly how it works. There are two classes of motorcycle endorsement: less than 150cc, and more than 150cc. In both cases, there are permitting and testing requirements. There is no gap.
Back to parking for a second. The other key advantage of 50cc scooters having a separate legal designation is that in many places, you can park a scooter anywhere that you could otherwise park a bicycle. This is extremely convenient in urban city centers and college campuses where parking is at a premium. I’d love to see this expand to include any two-wheeled vehicle under a certain size. Seems to me that anything under 250cc ought to be able to be parked anywhere that isn’t legitimately in the way. Chain them to parking meters. Place them on the end of bike racks. Really anywhere that doesn’t impede foot traffic should be fair game for small scooters, mopeds and motorcycles. Is that likely to happen any time soon? Probably not, but in these two areas, I’d love to see a shift in policy nationwide. Let’s close the license gap and open up the freedom to park. Who’s with me?!