Pocket bikes dangerous, can’t be on public roads

Q: I’ve noticed a proliferation of children riding small (but loud) motorcycles around the neighborhood. Usually up and down the same street until presumably either their fuel runs out or their mother calls them in for dinner. Sometimes they have helmets, sometimes not. What does the law say about that kind of activity?

A: If I were 12 years old and had access to a pocket bike, I’d definitely want to ride it on the road. They are kind of dumb that way. So parents, this one’s on you, both legally and as the adult.

First, the legal stuff. We’re dealing with two parts here; the vehicle and the rider. You described the motorcycles as small and loud. The small part suggests they’re not a typical street-legal motorcycle, and the loud part indicates they’re not electric bikes. I’m guessing these are pocket bikes. They don’t reach even the lowest bar for a street-legal gas-powered two-wheeler like a moped. Although many pocket bikes meet the 50-cc engine size limit for mopeds, they fall short on the safety end of things. Mopeds are required to have mirrors, brakes, controls, headlight, taillight, brake light, tires and muffler. Pocket bikes have substandard equipment (brakes, tires, controls) or lack them completely (mirrors, lights, muffler).

There’s also no license plate. Mopeds are required to be registered, and you won’t get a registration for a pocket bike if it doesn’t meet the safety requirements.

But let’s imagine that someone was able to find a pocket bike that met all the requirements to ride on the road. That doesn’t make it legal for a child to ride it. A moped rider must be at least 16 and have a valid driver’s license. Riders must also wear a helmet.

There’s one more law I should mention, and this one is for the parents. It’s unlawful to allow your child to operate a motor vehicle on a public roadway “when such minor is not authorized hereunder or in violation of any of the provisions” that I’ve mentioned in this column.

Legally, the kid could get arrested for driving without a license, the parent could get an infraction for allowing the child to ride the pocket bike on the road, and the police could impound the pocket bike because it was operated by an unlicensed rider.

I’m less concerned about the legal consequences than the physical risks to a kid. At 12 I didn’t have the judgment to make good decisions while riding my bike down the street. (Like the time I tried to jump a ramp built out of a sheet of plywood and a garbage can, crashing gloriously in the center of the road.)

Tragically, reality bears out that other kids also aren’t conscious of the risks. A quick internet search for kids crashing on pocket bikes returns too many responses of serious injury and fatal crashes. Pocket bikes can be fun, but a kid on an overpowered tiny motorcycle shouldn’t be competing with traffic on public roads. If your kid wants to ride a pocket bike, keep them off the road.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.