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Peter DeMarco | Who taught YOU to drive?

Two-wheeled weirdness

Donald Hayes made the nightly news last winter for trying to buy a cup of coffee at Dunkin' Donuts. Hayes has multiple sclerosis and uses a motorized wheelchair. Because he has difficulty getting through the coffee shop's front door without assistance, he joined the line at the drive-through window. He was refused service, with the company telling Hayes it wasn't safe for him to drive among cars.

"To me, it's a vehicle. It's my transportation. I don't walk; I can't walk," Hayes said about his wheelchair when I phoned him at his Weymouth home last week. "I've been on Route 18 a number of times. I got yelled at by the nurses for doing it . . . but I had to go to the hospital."

I can't say whether Hayes should have been given his coffee. But his story did get me thinking about what types of vehicles are - and are not - allowed on public roads.

There's some odd stuff out there - everything from pocket motorcycles to farm tractors to the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. Back in July, I wrote that it's legal to ride a horse down the street, but what about a Segway?

We'll cover oddball vehicles of the two-wheel variety today, saving larger stuff for next week.

The law says
Four simple criteria define normal cars and trucks, said Sergeant Michael Maffei, a veteran of the Cambridge Police Department's traffic unit. If state law requires your wheeled contraption to be inspected, registered, and insured, and to be driven by an appropriately licensed driver - e.g., for a motorcycle, you need a motorcycle operator's license - then it's an ordinary "motor vehicle." Every word of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 90, the law of the road, applies to you.

"If it doesn't check off those four boxes," Maffei said, "it's an exception."

Motorized wheelchairs are one such exception. The law acknowledges their existence, but prohibits them from being driven on roadways as vehicles, because most travel only about 5 miles per hour. (A person in a motorized wheelchair is considered just another pedestrian, Maffei said.)

Other "exceptions" are allowed on roadways, albeit under their own special, and often screwy, rules.

Take mopeds, for instance. Mopeds don't need license plates and don't need to be inspected, but you must have a driver's license to operate one, and you must wear a helmet.

You can drive a moped on the street, but not on a divided highway, and never faster than 25 miles per hour. You can drive a moped in an on-street bike lane, but you can't drive a moped on an off-road recreational path, such as the Minuteman Bikeway.

The difference between a moped and a motorcycle? If your moped's engine is less than 50 cubic centimeters in size, it's considered a "motorized bicycle." Even if you run a red light, the maximum fine you can get is $25. If your moped's engine is bigger than 50cc, the state considers it to be a motorcycle, and thus no different than a car.

Rules for miniature -motorcycles are even more confusing. Known also as pocket or ninja motorcycles, these tiny gizmos that look like they belong in the circus come under the legal term "motorized scooters."

Motorized scooters do not need to be registered, insured, or inspected. But you do need a driver's license to drive one and, unlike mopeds, all the rules of the road apply, including drunken-driving laws. In addition, you can't go faster than 20 miles per hour, you can't drive at night, and you can't pass on the left, which basically means you have to stay in the right-hand lane.

Police don't necessarily love such legal quirkiness, but for now, that's all they've got to work with, Maffei said.

"It's just that technology is ahead of the law right now. You can't shoehorn these things in," he said.

A ride-through loophole
The latest befuddling vehicle, of course, is the upright Segway, which allows riders to zip along at speeds up to 12.5 miles per hour while standing up. Were you to buy one, could you ride it on the street?

Amazingly, no one can answer this question. The Department of Motor Vehicles can't. Segway officials can't. Police can't.

Some 42 states have adopted laws on where Segways - the generic term is "electric personal assistive mobility devices" - can or can't be ridden. For whatever reason, Massachusetts legislators haven't gotten around to it. A bill that would set down rules for Segway operators was briefly heard at the State House on Tuesday but appears to be headed nowhere for the sixth year in a row.

Local municipalities have the power to set their own Segway guidelines - Cambridge, for instance, allows them on most sidewalks - but riders can't go faster than walking speed, which sort of defeats the purpose.

But in the majority of our state, it's unclear whether a person on a Segway is a pedestrian, something akin to a moped driver, or something completely different.

As such, there's nothing stopping a Segway owner from cruising along a sidewalk or a local street. The consensus is that one day a Segway owner will get a ticket for doing just that. Then he or she will fight it in court, and our state's judges, at long last, will decide where Segways can roam.

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