A 15-year-old who has zero experience behind the wheel can drive next to you during your morning commute on State Road 135.
That’s because Indiana law only requires teens to be 15 and have a state identification card before they can join cars and trucks on Indiana highways. Residents who have lost their driver’s licenses for driving while intoxicated also can take to the road on a mo-ped.
The state restricts small mo-peds, or any motorized bike that isn’t designed to drive faster than 25 mph and therefore isn’t classified as a motorcycle, to driving at the 25 mph limit and doesn’t allow them on interstates.
A movement is underway to change state law.
Because of the few laws and increasing number of mo-ped accidents, according to data the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute tracks, legislators and residents of Evansville have started asking Indiana residents across the state to sign a petition requesting that local and state officials re-examine mo-ped regulations. The petition simply asks: “Please update the laws regarding motorized scooters within the State of Indiana.”
The goal of the group behind the petition, which had collected nearly 900 signatures, is to show legislators that the few lawmakers who have asked for mo-ped law changes recently aren’t the only Indiana residents concerned about how little mo-peds are regulated, State Rep. Gail Riecken said.
Riecken, two neighborhood association presidents, a city council member and a police officer from Evansville created the petition and will collect signatures through November, finishing in time for lawmakers to consider it when they are drafting bills for the next legislative session. Reicken’s group is meeting with neighborhood associations and police departments in southern Indiana to promote the petition.
“It’s merely reflecting the frustration that people have that our laws aren’t working and that they want something done,” Reicken said.
Mo-ped drivers should be required to get safety training, Riecken said. In Evansville, many mo-ped drivers don’t know how to use the bikes, let alone make safe turns onto streets and avoid spills on gravel, she said. She also wants to see mo-peds be registered with the state so officials know how many mo-peds are on the streets.
State law is outdated and doesn’t even use the word “mo-ped” to describe small motorbikes, so updated definitions would help local police officers enforce the laws, she said.
The state calls mo-peds “motorized bicycles”; and in Evansville, city code defines a small motorized bike in one place as a “motor-driven bicycle” and in another as a “mini bike.” The lack of clear definitions cloud what rules apply to mo-ped drivers, Riecken said.
Cities and towns can pass local rules, such as requiring mo-ped registrations, but Johnson County’s governments don’t restrict mo-ped drivers beyond state law. Even if they did approve some regulations, the governments couldn’t restrict mo-ped use on State Road 135, U.S. 31 or any other state-controlled road, Franklin city attorney Lynn Gray said.
The cities of Terre Haute and Evansville have local rules that go beyond state law to regulate mo-ped use. Both cities require mo-ped owners to register their bikes with the city if they’re going to be driven in the city. The registrations help local police track the mo-peds more easily if they are stolen, officials said.
Other cities and towns also could add stricter mo-ped rules, including possibly limiting where mo-peds can drive, as long as the rules don’t contradict state law, Jodie Woods, attorney for the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, said.
State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, has been trying for three years to get the Indiana House and Senate to pass new safety requirements for mo-ped drivers. Those safety measures would include requiring mo-ped drivers to take a driver’s test and have proof of passing that test on the driver’s license or state-issued identification cards the law already requires them to carry, Smith said.
Currently, mo-peds are allowed on U.S. 31 and State Road 135 in Johnson County, which have sections where speed limits top 50 mph. Those high-speed, busy roads aren’t safe for mo-peds, Johnson County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Randy Werden said. Local police officers can only enforce what’s clearly stated in Indiana law, though, and the law doesn’t prohibit mo-peds from driving on those roads, local officials said.
“I think the majority of the officers would like to see the law changed,” Werden said.
Mo-ped drivers in Johnson County face dangers when driving onto a roadway, Werden said. Local police officers can’t protect the drivers with more strict rules than existing laws provide, he said.
‘Hard to see’
In 2012, 23 mo-ped drivers died in accidents in the state out of a total of 770 traffic fatalities, according to reports from the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute. The number of mo-ped drivers in accidents was 1,144 in 2012, doubling from 2008, and only 20 percent of those drivers weren’t injured. This July, a 15-year-old boy from Greenwood died after a car hit his mo-ped on U.S. 31.
“They’re about half the size of motorcycles, and that makes them hard to see,” Franklin Police Chief Tim O’Sullivan said. “They’re not very fast; and oftentimes it’s young persons that are riding them, and they don’t make the best decisions.”
Mo-peds shouldn’t be driven on state or U.S. highways, where the speed limits range from 30 to 60 mph, O’Sullivan said. But he said the most his officers can do is use their own judgment about enforcing current law.
“We’re going to see more mo-peds out, and we’re going to have more bad accidents happen with them,” Sheriff Doug Cox said.
Officers can pull over mo-ped drivers for driving too slowly for conditions, but the police are far more likely to watch for and stop speeding vehicles, O’Sullivan said. He doesn’t plan to encourage his officers to stop mo-peds driving under the speed limit more often, he said.
“We already keep a close eye out for safety issues,” he said.
If a mo-ped collides with a car, the accidents tend to be very serious, even if the mo-ped driver followed the law, Werden said.
“They’re not made to be loud like a motorcycle. Sometimes they appear before people have time to react to them,” he said. “It just makes for a very dangerous situation.”
Smith, whose district includes part of Edinburgh, has pushed for changes to state mo-ped laws during the past three legislative sessions. He has given up pursuing the tightest restrictions he’d once hoped for, though. He wanted every mo-ped driver to be required to have a driver’s license, but that idea met strong opposition in a House study committee in 2010, he said.
Smith had noticed that an acquaintance started driving a mo-ped after losing his license to a DUI conviction, and that got him started on his crusade to change Indiana law.
“I thought it was wrong. If someone breaks our traffic laws, then why should we allow them to ride a small motorcycle on the street?” Smith said.
Other legislators in the study committee argued, though, that requiring a driver’s license would prevent residents who can’t get them due to criminal convictions, such as for DUIs, from getting to work and supporting their families.
“I know the General Assembly is not going to make them get a driver’s license. I’m going to give up on that,” Smith said.
He’s not going to fight for the age limit for driving mo-peds to be raised. Because of opposition, Smith also dropped his request that all mo-ped drivers buy insurance.
This year, Smith focused his bill on making sure mo-ped drivers at least prove by taking a test that they know the traffic laws. He also asked that mo-peds with cylinders smaller than 50 cubic centimeters and two horsepower or smaller engines be registered and plated with the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Currently, the state classifies mo-peds larger than that as motorcycles. Indiana’s more stringent restrictions are on drivers of the larger bikes, which require license plates. State law also requires the drivers to take a driving test and either get motorcycle driving permits or add a motorcycle endorsement to existing driver’s licenses.
Manufacturers are making mo-peds smaller and smaller, and state law hasn’t changed to regulate the smaller sizes, Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles spokesman Josh Gillespie said. The bureau can’t ask for law changes but has helped Smith think through specifics, such as how to set deadlines for when all mo-peds would have to register with the state if the law were changed. More and more small mo-peds are driving on Indiana roads, but because they’re not registered with the state, no one knows how many are out there, Gillespie said.
Johnson County has 29 registered mo-peds — and the reason the count is small is because the only ones registered are large enough to be defined as motorcycles, Gillespie said.
“It’s probably about time that the law caught up with what’s going on with mo-peds,” he said.
Requiring license plates and mo-ped registration with the BMV would make it easier for police officers to track down stolen bikes, Smith said. Also, license plates would help other motorists report mo-ped drivers who are running stop signs or weaving dangerously in traffic, he said. Currently, other drivers can’t easily identify a dangerous mo-ped driver to police because no small mo-ped has a license plate number to report, he said.
In his most recent bill Smith also asked to raise the mo-ped speed limit to 30 mph, so the bikes can keep up better with traffic on city streets. He also requested that mo-peds be required to stay as far right on roads as they safely can, unless they are turning, so the drivers aren’t in as much danger when cars try to pass them, he said.
Smith’s revised mo-ped proposals have passed twice in the House but haven’t gotten past the committee stage in the Senate.
“There are just a few members in the General Assembly who feel like this is just more big government, more government regulation,” Smith said.
When legislators or residents argue with his proposed changes, he asks them how they would feel if they hit and killed a mo-ped driver.
“I’m doing this for every person, not just the mo-ped driver. If you run over a mo-ped driver tonight, you’re going to live with that the rest of your life,” he said.
Smith plans to reintroduce his most recent mo-ped bill in November. He is open to ideas for modifying the bill and suggests that all concerned residents contact him or their senators and representatives to share their concerns, he said. The House and Senate would both have to approve the law for state legislation to change.