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Picking on Poor People: Outlawing minibikes and ATVs

Providence and Cranston seem to regard themselves as cities under siege from two-wheeled minibikes and four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) on their streets.

“The use of dirt bikes and ATVs on our streets is illegal and is a serious danger,” said Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza in a statement on the city’s official website.

But why are they illegal? And are they really dangerous?

In terms of safety, minibikes are not inherently more dangerous than motorcycles if operated with proper equipment, particularly a helmet. If anything, their smaller engine sizes likely make them safer, all other factors being equal. My inference is that they are illegal only because they are illegal: RI General Laws §31-3.2-1(8) defines the prohibited class “’Recreational vehicle’ means a motor vehicle including minibikes designed to travel over unimproved terrain and which has been determined by the division of motor vehicles as unsuitable for operation on the public way and not eligible for registration for such use.” But that clause goes on to allow “golf mobiles or golf carts, riding lawn mowers, or garden tractors, which are not registered as farm vehicles,” before again explicitly prohibiting “any three (3) wheel driven vehicle and any other four (4) wheel driven vehicle, regardless of type or design, including all classes of all-terrain vehicles.”

Aside from the horrifically bad drafting – you can’t do this, except you can do this, but you can’t do that – the distinguishing criterion seems to be the demographics of the users. If you can afford a car or conventional motorcycle, you’re legal; if you can’t afford it, you’re not.

Of course, to obtain a motorcycle license, a RI resident has to pay $195 and take a 13-hour course consisting of 3 hours of lectures and two 5-hour riding sessions. The state supplies the motorcycles, but students must supply their own protective gear, including certified helmet and gloves. I have a motorcycle license: I’ll be the first to admit the course is an excellent value and the gear is necessary, but it’s not cheap.

Chicago Scooter “Go” 50cc (Courtesy: The Scooter Palace)

If you’re looking for relatively inexpensive legal transportation there is the motor scooter, and for engine size under 50cc only an ordinary car driving license is required but not a motorcycle license. Phillip Deducca, owner of the Scooter Palace in Tiverton, told Motif, “That’s the out-the-door price, as they say: All set up, ready to go, with the documentation and all the paperwork you need to register it. They start at $1,400 all the way up to $3,000, depending on the model.” Most of his customers are buying a scooter for fun, but “we have a growing number of people that are using them for transportation, because of the fact that autos are really expensive. Add the insurance and costs – fuel mileage, and parking – so you’ve got a lot of people that are in that first job kind of situation: they don’t have much money but they need a vehicle to get back and forth to work. It’s a good alternative for people to get started.” Scooters get up to 90 miles per gallon fuel economy, he said. If you lack transportation to get to his shop, he said he’ll deliver in Tiverton for free and anywhere else in RI for $40.

Deducca sympathizes with the urban riders of minibikes and ATVs because, he said, the state is failing to meet its obligations to them. “Each state is supposed to take part of the tax money to provide places because, when you buy fuel, there’s tax on there to maintain roads. When you’re buying fuel for your off-road vehicle, they’re supposed to be using that money to maintain a trail system.”

Tom Rosa, administrative officer with RI Parks and Recreation, confirmed to Motif that no such facilities exist in the state: “The only legal place to operate vehicles like that is on private property with the land owner’s permission. There is no public property that allows that.”

“Straight Outta Little Compton: Rollin’ in my tweed, wearin’ knickers with attitude.” (Photo: Michael Bilow)

If you’re handy with tools, kits are available for as little as $130 that put a gasoline motor onto an ordinary pedal bicycle. Is it street-legal? I couldn’t get that question answered by the RI DMV, but I know a number of people who have built these and none of them get hassled by the police for riding what looks like an unremarkable bicycle. The pedals still work, and in fact are needed to start the motor. RI General Laws §31-3-2.2(a) requires that “[e]very motorcycle, motorized bicycle, and motorized tricycle” must be registered, but it would be a challenge trying to do that: Your homebrew moped made from a pedal bicycle will have no title, no paperwork and no certifications.

But this same legal clause provides, “An electric personal assistive mobility device (‘EPAMD’) and electric motorized bicycles shall not be required to register under this chapter; provided, however, that an EPAMD and/or electric motorized bicycles shall not be operated in this state by a person under the age of sixteen (16) years.” Setting aside the EPAMD, which is essentially an electric wheelchair or Segway, why exempt electric motorized bicycles but not gasoline motorized bicycles? You can buy an electric motor kit for about the same price as a gasoline motor kit, although batteries are not included.

If you need inexpensive transportation, the state will let you have a golf cart but not an ATV, a motorcycle but not a minibike, and an electric moped but (maybe) not a gas moped. Is the difference in the vehicles, or is it in the riders?

Jeremy Costa, an activist with BikeLife Lives Matter, wrote in our pages on December 2, 2020, “In 2017, the Providence town council wrote an ordinance that allows Providence police to confiscate and destroy illegally ridden ATVs and dirt bikes. This October, the City of Providence, in a show of enforcement, publicly demolished 33 dirt bikes and ATVs. One week later, during a ride-out on October 18, 24-year-old Jhamal Gonsalves was involved in a vehicular incident with the Providence Police that put him in a coma where he remains today.”

RI Attorney General Peter Neronha announced on January 7, 2021, that none of the police officers involved in the Jhamal Gonsalves crash would face charges. Several police officers were disciplined: Kyle Andres, who drove the police car that hit the stop sign that caused Gonsalves serious head injury, was suspended for two days; three officers will be counseled for not activating their body cameras; a number of officers will be retrained after improperly administering naloxone on the mistaken assumption that Gonsalves was under the influence of opiods.

But the municipal campaign against small, affordable motorized vehicles continues.

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