Moped Safety Debated

By COLE LOUISON

A forum at the Oak Bluffs School last night began with the findings of a recent study on two-wheeled vehicles and ended in a lengthy dialogue about the history, safety and future of mopeds on the Island.

Dr. Alan Hirshberg's year-long study of accidents involving mopeds, bicycles and motorcycles found that most moped accident victims are daytrippers to the Island who have received under seven minutes of training.

Joining Dr. Hirshberg were a member of the Mopeds Are Dangerous Coalition, the owner of a moped rental shop, Tisbury chief of police John McCarthy and state Rep. Eric Turkington of Falmouth.

"This moped issue has been on the Vineyard agenda for as long as I can remember," said Mr. Turkington, happy to see different sides of the argument represented at the same table. "This is a great piece of progress - even before any of us open our mouths."

Dr. Hirshberg presented his data in the form of graphs and charts to an audience that included Island EMTs, moped shop owners and political leaders opposed to the vehicles so common on Island roads in the summer. Data included numbers on the dates when most accidents took place, emergency visits, ages and genders of riders, and the hospital costs to treat the injured, but discussion mostly revolved around the safety of mopeds and what measures need to be taken in the future.

Mr. McCarthy recapped the 1978 legislation which introduced the modern-day moped issue to Martha's Vineyard, he said. Before then, mopeds were essentially motorized bicycles, a slower, scaled-down version of what is offered today.

"We had the experience of having quite a number of accidents. Those were new to us, and it drew our attention," he recalled of the first year moped rentals were open to most anyone. "We would typically address these issues with mopeds like they were motorcycles, so when the legislation passed, it was a new entity to us."

An entity that must be better controlled, argued Sam Feldman of the Mopeds Are Dangerous Coalition. Mr. Feldman read from a 1998 newspaper article on the death of a man in a moped crash while on vacation with his family.

"Why is it that we can't do something to stop this? We must do something about it," he said. "The idea that mopeds are motorized bicycles went out 20 years ago. These are powerful motorized vehicles we are renting to our tourists."

He went on to list the three objectives of the coalition, which included establishing a requirement that riders be further educated, a weight restriction for renters, and an Island ban on a new line of moped called a zoomer, which can reach speeds of 50 miles an hour.

Fran Alarie, owner of the Two-Wheel Traveler moped rental shop in Oak Bluffs, said a consensus can be reached between the strongly divided schools of opinion if an effort is made.

"After 20 years of dialogue, in the past year several people mentioned these things that we should do, and we're doing them. We're trying to cooperate." Mr. Alarie explained the pamphlets and instructional video he and other moped rental dealers had put together at the request of those pressing for better training for moped riders. He said he had attempted to place signs around the hairpin turn near the hospital, a site of several serious moped accidents, but was not allowed because the road is a state highway.

"We should all come together to work this out. There are so many things both sides can do to promote safety," he said. He also pointed to a decline in moped accidents over the last 20 years and noted that while 66 accidents were reported this year, more than 30,000 people rented mopeds.

"One accident is too many," he said. "But it's not as bad as everyone seems to think."

Anne DeBettencourt, owner of DeBettencourt's bike shop in Oak Bluffs, echoed Mr. Alarie's words, defending recent precautions taken to prepare riders and arguing that mopeds relieve traffic congestion during the tourist season.

"If all the people who rented mopeds rented cars, we wouldn't be able to drive on this Island," he said, "and we have to take that into consideration."

But mopeds found few defenders at yesterday's forum aside from the owners of the rental shops.

Edgartown selectman Ted Morgan decried the lack of action at the state level to prevent more accidents.

"Nothing has happened," he said. "The legislature just doesn't seem to care or want to react to this problem. They leave it up to you, and you have to do the right thing."

Mr. Alarie and Mr. Feldman agreed to look into a meeting of moped-dealership owners and coalition members or a discussion of future safety precautions.