Soundings : Rolling loopholes: a brief history
It's been said that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. The Island's example of this deep truth is the moped, a vehicle designed by the General Court of Massachusetts.
The moped is buzzing, swerving, smoke-spewing and ultimately life-endangering proof that given a deliberative body large enough, and with the right sequence of small, seemingly reasonable steps, you can arrive at an entirely preposterous result.
In the beginning, more than a century ago, was the bicycle. Then in the great tradition of American tinkering, somebody attached a tiny motor to help on the hills. The Massachusetts legislature pondered this new creation and decided to call it a motorized bicycle, or moped.
It seemed unnecessary then to burden the owners of motorized bicycles with all the responsibilities of motorcycle ownership - fussy details like carrying insurance and having to demonstrate any ability to pilot the things. And so the moped was assigned to a new class of its own, somewhere between the lands of Schwinn and Harley-Davidson.
Years passed, and moped engines improved. Manufacturers started building mopeds from the ground up rather than just bolting dinky engines onto bicycle frames. Until a funny thing happened: Mopeds evolved to the point where the pedals became frills, vestigial appendages, even outright inconveniences. Those pedals weren't fooling anyone: You couldn't propel a moped for more than 50 yards without suffering a coronary. Their only uses were as wobbly footrests, and for the comical ritual of putting the moped up on its stand and churning madly to start the motor.
Another way of saying this is that as mopeds evolved, they grew right out of the special category the state had created for them.
So the moped industry went back to Beacon Hill and persuaded the legislature to refine the definition. Not to stand in the way of progress, the lawmakers complied. Now, as hilariously amended, Massachusetts law defines the moped as "a pedal bicycle which has a helper motor, or - wait for it - "a non-pedal bicycle which has a motor."
With this redefinition, the legislature boldly stepped into that la-la land where words lose their last thread of connection with the realities to which they once pointed. (Here's another bit of through-the-looking-glass illogic: By law, mopeds must be "capable of a maximum speed of not more than 30 m.p.h." But also by law, it's prohibited to drive one at speeds over 25.)
And yet, I find that in years of navigating summer traffic on Martha's Vineyard, my perspective on the moped has also evolved. Certainly I'd wish these vehicles away entirely, if I could. But having dodged and collided with both inattentive bicyclists and preoccupied auto drivers on my commute into Edgartown, I appreciate that danger follows the operator more than it does the equipment.
There are, in fact, two sets of people who have no business on a moped amid the traffic of a Vineyard summer. One set comprises the physically clueless - those who demonstrably lack the skills necessary for operating a powered, two-wheeled vehicle. Another set is those who have persuaded themselves that the laws of physics are magically suspended because this is Vacationland, and it's all a wonderful game. Chins hugging the handlebars, screaming woohoo! and twisting the grips for another ounce of speed, they race each other across the Island. As mom used to say, it's all great fun until somebody gets hurt.
In fact, today's mopeds, without the pedals once needed to meet the letter of the law, are safer and more stable than their predecessors. What we have here is a fleet of tiny motor scooters, with all the advantages and disadvantages accruing to this family of vehicles. Scooters as a class are fuel-efficient, inexpensive and easy to park. They're also inherently unstable and leave their operators and passengers notably vulnerable in crashes.
Operating any motorcycle - mopeds included - is a skill that grows over time. The problem with mopeds on the Vineyard is that most of them are driven by renters on their very first outing. (I've got no beef with the growing numbers of mopeds operated year-round by decently skilled owners - they fit into the Vineyard traffic mix surprisingly well.)
There's a spectacularly easy fix: We needn't outlaw mopeds, merely acknowledge them as the motorcycles they so obviously are. That would mean requiring liability insurance. More important, it would mean requiring that operators show some minimum degree of competence before being waved out onto the roads anywhere in Massachusetts, let alone these winding Island highways with their borders of sand.
The cynical calculus of politics suggests that this solution makes way too much sense ever to become reality - that our legislature will most likely leave things as they stand. Mopeds are profitable for the merchants who rent them. And we've seen only four moped fatalities on Martha's Vineyard in the past dozen years, which although tragic, is too little carnage to generate the public outrage necessary to bring any change.