Just days after another moped rider was hit on the Ravenel Bridge earlier this month, state safety officials released a report warning that the number of mopeds deaths are on the rise.
The annual number of moped deaths in South Carolina tripled between 2008 and 2012, mainly because more of them were on the road each year.
Moped fatalities rising
Moped fatalities in South Carolina rose each year through 2012, then dropped in 2013.
But fatalities are climbing again, as indicated by the number for the first six months of the year.
S.C. Office of Highway Safety
A moped is basically a scooter with a small engine (no bigger than 50 cubic centimeters) that can't go faster than 30 mph, although a moped's legal speed limit is 25 mph, according to state law.
Mopeds often look like faster scooters, but they must have a plate on the back identifying them as mopeds.
Mopeds can ride on any street or road where they are not specifically prohibited, such as interstates. A moped rider does not need a regular driver's license.
A 14-year-old can ride a moped on public streets. A driver who has lost his license because of a DUI conviction can get a moped license.
Moped owners don't have to pay property taxes or registration and license fees.
The number of moped licenses (called Class G) in South Carolina increased 13 percent in the last five years, according to Department of Motor Vehicles spokeswoman Beth Parks. That number only includes moped riders who don't have a regular driver's license; those drivers don't need a special moped license.
The cost is a big attraction. A person can buy a moped for under $1,000 and go more than 100 miles on a gallon of gas. It's also easy to find free parking for a moped, a major plus for those working in downtown Charleston or driving around the beaches.
There is no law that says a moped can't go over the bridge between Mount Pleasant and Charleston, but the steep incline and the fact that cars routinely change lanes while exceeding the 55 mph speed limit makes it particularly dangerous for mopeds.
A 24-year-old moped rider was seriously injured on the Ravenel Bridge earlier this month. A 20-year-old driving a Ford SUV was changing lanes heading toward Charleston and ran into a moped in front of him, according to the Mount Pleasant police incident report. The moped rider was not at fault.
Three years earlier, a 32-year-old Johns Island woman riding a moped was fatally injured merging onto the Ravenel Bridge from Coleman Boulevard. She also was not at fault.
Pedestrians and bicyclists have their own lane on the Ravenel Bridge. Mopeds aren't allowed.
State safety officials spent $200,000 last year urging drivers to pay more attention to mopeds, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians. That's probably why the number of moped deaths dropped in 2013, Highway Patrol Sgt. Bob Beres said.
But fatalities shot up again this year. More than twice the number of moped riders have died the first half of this year compared to last year.
Moped riders can do a few things to protect themselves. Beres urges moped riders to wear reflective clothing and put blinking lights on the scooter or helmet.
"A lot of times you won't see them until you're right up on them," he said.
Some moped riders have taken additional steps to protect themselves.
Dick Davis, a 71-year-old James Island resident, rides his moped almost everywhere. He bought his TaoTao for about $800 four years ago and estimates he has saved $1,500 in gas. Parking on Folly Beach is never a problem.
But Davis acknowledges that sometimes other drivers on Folly Road are not always considerate. So he performed an operation that allows his moped to accelerate above 40 mph when he needs to get out of a jam.
A 50 cubic-centimeter moped engine is built to go faster than 30 mph - the state limit for a moped - but they're limited by a restrictor. Taking off the restrictor is a simple procedure, although legally it means you're not driving a moped anymore and have to get a regular license plate.
"If I don't feel safe, I speed up," Davis said. "That's why I took off the restrictor."
Caleb Crews owns the Scooter Stop on Folly Road, where Davis bought his bike and is considering a fancier model. Crews also has concerns about limiting a moped to 25 mph on roads where cars can go much faster. He also said mopeds should be able to go faster to avoid getting hit from behind.
"Basically just to get you out of a situation and run where you feel is safe," he said. "Even though you might be breaking the law, you'd rather break the law and feel safe than stick with the law and not feel safe."
Any scooter that has been modified to go faster than 30 mph is not considered a moped, according to Beres.
"That would be considered a scooter and would require different licenses," he said.
Virginia law allows moped riders to go 35 mph. But Virginia also toughened the requirements for mopeds last year. Now anybody who loses a license because of a DUI conviction can't ride a moped; a moped rider must be at least 16 years old; moped riders must wear a helmet and must wear goggles or a face shield if the moped doesn't have a windshield; mopeds must be titled and registered and have a license plate; and moped riders must carry a government-issued photo ID.
Various efforts to toughen South Carolina's moped laws have failed. For instance, last year the House passed a bill that would have required moped riders to wear reflective vests and for mopeds to have flashing red lights. The bill also would have required moped drivers to get insurance coverage and would allow police to cite them for driving under the influence. The effort died in the Senate.
Mopeds are ideal for the islands and downtown Charleston, according to Dave Jarman, owner of Port City Moped on the Isle of Palms.
"The island is perfect because the speed limit does not exceed 35 mph and drivers are on 'island time' with no rush to get anywhere," he said. "A moped has absolutely no business going over the Ravenel Bridge."
But even those riding on downtown streets have to be constantly on guard.
Madison McGhee, a rising senior at the College of Charleston, bought a Tiffany blue Lance moped last July from Port City Moped.
"I use it for almost everything and anything," she said.
She can pull into a tight parking space in a residential neighborhood and walk to class, she said.
She has never taken the moped off the peninsula.
She had an accident in April, and it wasn't her fault. A U-Haul truck hit her at King and George streets and kept going. She was knocked over and her bike banged up a bit, but she was not seriously hurt.
"It was definitely a little scary," she said.
But she drove off after the accident and has been riding as usual since then. Several of her friends tell her they also plan to get a moped.
"It's a matter of education," Jarman said, "You can't argue with me that a moped is more unsafe than a bicycle."
Every moped dealer and rider interviewed for this article agreed that the Ravenel Bridge was no place for a moped. But some pointed out that people do what they have to do when a moped is their only means of transportation.
"If anyone gives me any indication that there is even a chance they would ride over the Ravenel Bridge, then I tell them point blank do not do it," said Michael Schillo, owner of Charleston Scooter Company on Savannah Highway in West Ashley. "But some of them don't have another mode of transportation. Most customers financially can't afford an automobile or have had something happen where they can't get a driver's license. They're just trying to get transportation back and forth to work."
Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.
Moped riders have been taking their chances on the Arthur Ravenel Bridge for several years, as in this photo taken in 2005, despite the fact that about everybody agrees itís not a good idea.×
State safety officials have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars urging drivers to watch out for mopeds, to avoid accidents like this one at King and Line streets in May 2012.×