Lawmakers trying to close moped loophole in rural vs. urban debate

A motorist on a moped crosses the Ravenel Bridge heading into Mount Pleasant on Thursday.

COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s lawmakers are hoping to close a loophole that has allowed drunken drivers and others whose licenses have been suspended or revoked to skirt the law by hopping behind the handlebars of mopeds.

While that’s a major concern with the popular but slow-moving motorized two-wheelers, lawmakers also are looking at limiting mopeds to roads with speed limits of 35 to 45 mph. In South Carolina, the fastest a moped is allowed to go is 30 mph.

That’s turned the proposed moped changes into a classic urban vs. rural feud: what might make sense in Charleston or Columbia doesn’t play as well in the Upstate or the Pee Dee.

Rep. Walt McLeod, D-Little Mountain, said that in rural areas of the state, people trying to make it to work are forced to take farm-to-market roads with a 55 mph speed limit.

“There seems to have been a coalition at work to basically forbid mopeds from being functional transportation devices,” McLeod said. “People don’t want them around. I don’t know why.”

At least three bills are moving through committees and two have already passed the House. One calls for classifying mopeds as motor vehicles. The second calls for riders to wear reflective vests and attach a blinking light to the back of their two-wheelers.

But a third, more comprehensive bill being discussed in the House Transportation Subcommittee would also require riders to obtain a moped license, to register their moped, pay for a plate and get insurance. Plus, it would bar those with suspended licenses from obtaining a moped license, and the ban is reciprocal. Riders would have until 2018 to comply with the new law.

“I get complaints almost every week about mopeds,” said Rep. Joe Daning, R-Goose Creek. “I’ve had complaints about people on mopeds being drunk.”

Daning, who is a co-sponsor of the comprehensive bill, said the state is simply trying to limit the possibility of someone getting hurt, from the riders who get hit by a car that doesn’t spot them fast enough to potential habitual drunks.

“Many people on mopeds are getting killed on highways,” said Rep. Bill Crosby, R-North Charleston, the sponsor of the bill. He added that law enforcement asked him to fix the statute because it’s hard to convict drunken riders who are not considered drivers under the law.

Moped fatalities in South Carolina rose through 2012 and dropped in 2013 from 37 to 25. Earlier this month, 56-year-old Clifford Jackson was killed in Berkeley County while riding a moped when he crashed into a truck after running a red light, according to the South Carolina Highway Patrol. On Thursday, a moped rider was killed when a pickup turned in front of the two-wheeler in Berkeley County.

Those are all concerns McLeod said he understands. However, he said, tractors, bicycles and other slow-moving farm vehicles are often on the road and no one is trying to kick them off.

He said he doesn’t want drunken drivers to escape the law any more than anyone else, but they still have to get to work. In many rural areas, public transportation is not an option.

“It’s no fun to think about, but they need to remain productive members of society,” McLeod said of those with suspended licenses who turn to mopeds. “If you can’t go to work, you don’t have any money, you become a member of the under class and you can never get out.”

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.