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Motorized scooters become pesky problem

By Peter Maller
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MILWAUKEE – Slinger Police Chief Dale Schmidt pictured problems brewing when a woman called to ask whether her son could legally drive a motorized scooter on village streets.

Such vehicles, although banned by state law from public roads, were just becoming popular with teens and preteens when Schmidt received the call last year.

"She told me she got it free when she bought a car," Schmidt recalled. "I kind of raised my eyebrows and thought, 'Here we go.' "

His hunch was right. The scooters, which cost as little as $100 and can travel at speeds up to 20 mph, are creating headaches for law enforcement officials across southeast Wisconsin.

Nobody knows the number of scooters sold in the state, but buying them is no problem at most major discount department stores and toy shops, said Paul Nilsen, assistant general counsel for the state Department of Transportation.

"Everyone in the state of Wisconsin just kind of heaved a sign of relief when then they were put in storage last winter," he said.

"But now they coming out of storage again, and everyone - state officials, city councils, local police - is concerned again."

Motorized scooters "are like fireworks," said Sgt. Gus Unertl of the West Bend Police Department. "It's legal to buy them but it's illegal to use them."

People can get killed or seriously injured using scooters because they don't comply with federal safety standards for motor vehicles, said Sgt. Jim Bramm, traffic unit supervisor for the Menomonee Falls Police Department.

"If they're out on the road competing with all those vehicles that have the proper safety equipment, who do you think is going to come up on the short end of the stick?" Bramm said.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that 5,900 scooter-related injuries were treated in hospital emergency rooms in 2002, the most current data available. And at least three people died of their injuries, said commission spokesman Mark Ross.

"As motorized scooters become more popular, we're assuming the injuries will be going up," Ross said.

"Motorized scooters" is a term used to describe a wide range of motor vehicles that the state refuses to register for use on public roads, Nilsen said. State law prohibits the DOT from registering vehicles for on-road use that don't comply with federal safety rules, he said.

Legally equipped vehicles must have "working breaks and lights, electric systems that won't shock you and a gas tank that won't explode," among other safety features, Nilsen said.

Besides enforcing the state law, Milwaukee, South Milwaukee, West Bend and many other communities are using municipal ordinances to keep scooters off sidewalks.

"We had parents say, 'You're taking all the fun away from kids,' " said South Milwaukee Ald. Richard Raduenz, cochairman of the city's Legislation and Permits Committee. "We got a lot of remarks like that."

In Milwaukee, Deputy Police Inspector Raymond R. Cusik issued a directive last month telling officers to strictly enforce the ban on scooters from roads and sidewalks.

"I've given instructions to issue citations," he said, adding that he didn't know whether anyone has been penalized under the recent crackdown. "I believe (scooters) are play vehicles, and we will prohibit their use on public roadways and sidewalks."

Fewer motorized scooters have been seen so far in Racine this year compared with last summer, when itinerant merchants sold the vehicles from street corners, said Sgt. William Macemon, a Racine Police Department spokesman.

"I think we ironed out the problem though education," Macemon said. "We got the word out through newspapers and local TV to let people know these things were illegal on city streets."

But while officials work to keep scooters off streets, the DOT's Nilsen said he's worried about "a new wrinkle in the law" that may make some of scooters legal to operate.

Nilsen said he just learned that the U.S. Congress approved a new definition for certain scooters, redefining them as "low-speed electric bicycles."

The new classification applies to scooters with pedals and motors less powerful than 750 watts and have top speeds below 20 mph, Nilsen said.

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