Rick Cohen’s scooter may not have a speedometer and its exhaust pipes might be rusted, but two gallons of gas can last him 160 miles, good enough for an all-day drive through the Augusta area.
“For getting around town, they’re real economical,” said Cohen, a self-employed computer repairman from Trenton. “I’m saving up my money to buy a better one.”
The love of the Vespa is back.
Equipped with an engine the size of a weed-whacker motor, a 50-cubic-centimeter moped can get up to 125 miles to the gallon and in Georgia and South Carolina, does not require registration, insurance or a driver’s license to operate.
The perks have made the low-powered, gas-sipping models widely popular in the Augusta area among college students, cash-strapped residents and motorists who have had their licenses suspended due to impaired driving convictions, said Lt. Ramone Lamkin, head of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office’s Traffic Division.
Police often refer to them as “liquor cycles,” and as gas prices hover around $3.50 a gallon nationwide, some are worried local roads will become overcrowded with scooterists that by law, cannot travel faster than 30 mph and are protected from drunk driving charges.
“The toys we sell are really driven by the economy and the weather, which with gas prices the way they are and the weather finally warming up, scooter sales are good,” said David Heath, general manager of Street and Trail Motorsports in Evans.
Heath sells four Japanese models and one Taiwan brand of mopeds that range in price from $1,400 to $10,600 for scooters with engines greater than 50 cubic centimeters, which can be operated by licensed drivers as young as 14-years-old in South Carolina and 15 years-old in Georgia. Even a person who has had a regular driver’s license suspended after a first driving-under-the-influence conviction can obtain a moped license.
Although Heath would not provide specific data on his sales, he said that in 2012 he sold more scooters than in the two previous years combined. The figure matches estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that show in the past five years the number of moped riders in South Carolina and Georgia has more than doubled.
But the rising number of mopeds on the roads has brought more fatalities for moped drivers, especially in South Carolina, where moped fatalities (79) rank only behind North Carolina (83) for such deaths nationwide. Georgia has reported less than a handful of deaths.
While Richmond County has not yet lost a life from scooter riding, it’s a different story in Aiken County, where a death has been reported in four of the past five years, the most recent fatalities coming in January and February.
Sheriff’s deputies in Richmond and Aiken counties said they are educating moped riders to wear reflective clothing, use proper hand signals and never drive without a helmet. For cars, automobiles and trucks, traffic chiefs in Aiken and Richmond counties stressed patience.
“Make sure that you’re aware of your surroundings, share the road and pass in a safe manner when driving,” said Capt. Eric Abdulla, of the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office. “Because you could come up on a slow motorist or someone who is riding a moped.”
All six of the fatalities recorded in Aiken County since 2009 happened at night or during the early morning on busy highways with mopeds being rear ended, wreck reports show.
Tom Clancy, owner of the Augusta Triumph-Ducati motorcycle dealership on Wheeler Road, said he can sell as many as 12 to 15 scooters – prices starting at $3,300 – a month when gas prices creep closer to $4 a gallon. The AAA projects by mid-summer gas prices will be between $3.40 and $3.20.
With a downtown core that pales in size and has less activity than Athens, Atlanta and Savannah, Clancy said he recommends those who operate low-powered scooters stick to secondary roads.
“Scooters with 50 cubic-centimeter engines tend to struggle to make it over 30 mph,” Clancy said. “Unless you have a scooter with a little bit of gumption, you’re going to be holding up traffic.”