You may have heard them revving along quiet suburban streets, veering onto sidewalks, or winding through city traffic at 30 miles per hour. Some are shorter than a fire hydrant, and often the driver isn't old enough to carry a license.
Known as minimotorbikes or pocket bikes, they resemble small racing bikes; others look like souped-up scooters. Relatively inexpensive (some sell for $300) and available in different styles, they've become must-haves among teens and children. But as concerns mount over their dangers and noise, they're stirring a legal crackdown in cities nationwide.
Because they're sold as toys under names like Ninja Super Racer and Mini Chopper, they don't need to be registered with states' motor vehicle departments, and riders don't need a license or a helmet. Manufacturers say the bikes are intended to be used only on private property. But that's not stopping kids from veering onto public sidewalks and roadways and into parks.
"These things have really slipped through the loopholes of most state laws," says Matthew Candland, town manager of Sykesville, Md., near Baltimore.
While technically they are toys, the minimotorbikes are being used as something between a toy and a motor vehicle and ought to be regulated, some officials say. Sykesville just modified its "scooter ordinance" to include the pocket bikes and other motorized mini-vehicles. It now requires users to obey traffic laws. "We had debated an outright ban, but if people follow the rules of the road there'll be no problem," Mr. Candland says.
Candland understands the potential dangers firsthand. Driving home one night, he almost hit a scooter rider. "At the last minute I could see this kid swerving back and forth. I had to slam on my brakes."
The US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that 5,900 motorized scooter riders skidded into emergency rooms in 2002, the latest year for which statistics are available. Minibike mishaps led to another 2,000 visits to the E.R., says Mark Ross, a CPSC spokesman. By contrast, 60,000 riders of more powerful traditional motorized scooters found their way to emergency rooms in 2002.
While injuries caused by motorized bikes and scooters number far fewer than those caused by other rolling recreational vehicles, Ross says the fad has only just begun.
That's why some communities, including Boston and Providence, R.I., are considering laws tailored to the minimotorbikes, from requiring the use of safety gear to banning the toys altogether.
In New York the minimotorbikes have provoked warnings from police and concern among drivers and residents. The city recentlyproposed legislation that would ban their sale and use. Sellers who violate the ban would pay a $1,000 fine. Riders would pay $500 and see their toys impounded.
The bill is moving full speed ahead, says councilman John Liu, chair of the transportation committee. "Their proliferation is something that's dramatic, something that presents a devastating public danger," he says.
Other communities are hoping that parents will simply control their children. In a private Fort Myers, Fla., subdivision, residents report that two scooter-equipped kids buzz loudly and indiscriminately up and down streets, sidewalks, and lawns, leaving a trail of foul fumes. The neighborhood association has included a polite warning in its recent newsletter, asking parents to supervise their children better.
"There's nothing more that we can do other than express concern and warning about the potential danger of these things," says Ed Crittenden of the neighborhood association. "We don't want anybody hurt."
As communities debate whether and how to regulate the machines, stores are busy selling them. At a local Pep Boys in New York, minibikes and scooters are lined up near the front door. "As soon as people see them, they fall in love with them," says Charles Gillian, a shopper who is admiring a pocket bike.
Razor's electric-powered "Pocket Rocket" model will support up to 220 pounds and go 15 miles per hour. The "chopper style" minimotorcycle is even more popular. It comes equipped with a gas (or electric) motor, never more powerful than 49 cubic centimeters. Otherwise it would qualify as a motor vehicle, not a toy. It can reach 40 m.p.h.
While a ban in New York and other cities might prevent stores from selling the toys, nothing is stopping young people from ordering them online. "We've sold thousands of them," says Bob Brooks of Baronbob.com, which sells novelty items. Fathers see the bikes, which cost from $300 to $2,000, and can't resist their "authentic" look, Brooks says. "It's like I left my Harley out in the rain and it shrunk!" he jokes.