As if the fear of being mowed down by giant SUVs and hulking Hummers on the road doesn't make us crazy enough, now we also have to contend with pocket bikes, vehicular threats so tiny they look like toy motorcycles, ranging from 15 to 20 inches high.
Don't be deceived by how cute they look. These screaming machines can reach speeds of 40 miles per hour.
What's really frightening is "pocket bikes are being marketed to children as toys," says Carol Thorp, spokeswoman for the Automobile Club of Southern California.
Kids, teens and even some adults are fascinated by them. But to police, doctors and safety experts, these mini-motorcycles are a menace.
They are also illegal to drive on the streets or sidewalks in California and many other states. The miniature motorcycles don't meet Department of Motor Vehicle safety provisions. Most of them don't have required equipment such as lights, approved tires, brakes on both tires, horns or a 17-digit vehicle identification number (VIN). Therefore, they can be legally driven only on private property with the owner's consent.
As the pocket bikes grow in popularity, so does concern over deaths and injuries related to their use in California and elsewhere. As a result, LAPD officers are cracking down on pocket bike riders who break the law. They are impounding bikes and writing traffic citations when they catch drivers riding them on streets and sidewalks, says Deputy Chief Ronald Bergmann.
On May 20, a 14-year-old El Monte boy was struck and killed by a truck while riding a pocket bike on the street. Police said the truck driver indicated he could not see the boy. Another death involved a youth killed when his mini-motorcycle was struck by a car in South Los Angeles.
On July 9, an 8-year-old boy riding a pocket bike in the Valley suffered serious head injuries when he ran into a truck.
A 34-year-old man riding a pocket bike suffered head and shoulder injuries when he apparently fell off the cycle. A 14-year-old boy was injured while walking in the Laurel Canyon area when a pocket bike rider crashed into him and then fled.
In 2003, the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that hospitals nationwide treated 2,345 injuries involving small two-wheel motorized mini-bikes and trail bikes, spokesman Ken Giles said. The panel did not have nationwide fatality figures. Neither the CHP nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has numbers on deaths and injuries that involve these miniature bikes.
Anecdotally, CHP spokesman Steve Kohler says: "A lot of people don't know that these are not street legal and are disgruntled when they discover they can't ride them on streets or sidewalks." He notes that "it's hard enough for motorists to see a standard motorcycle in traffic. As a parent, I can't imagine you would think it would be safe to let your children ride these."
Pocket bikes range in price from $185 to $600 and are sold at toy stores, auto supply businesses and over the Internet.
They are so petite it can be impossible for motorists to see them in traffic, especially if the drivers are in a large truck or SUV, police said.
Although the bikes are noisy -- about as loud as a lawnmower -- a motorist backing out of a driveway with the radio on or windows closed could back right over a bike without seeing it.
The bikes can also be difficult to handle -- for children and adults -- because the vehicles are low to the ground yet can travel at such high speeds. With some modifications, the bikes can go as fast as 50 mph, police said.
"We know people are buying these for their kids to ride in neighborhoods," Thorp said. "The parents are sometimes out in the yard watching the kids ride the pocket bikes out in the street."
Dr. Mary Ann Limbos, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital, says, "Parents need to realize how dangerous these bikes could be for young children because they don't have the motor skills or judgment to safely drive these fast vehicles."
Parents may be getting the message. Though one manufacturer indicates their sales could exceed 500,000 pocket bikes by the end of 2004, at least one retailer in L.A.'s busy toy district says sales of the miniature vehicles have slackened since police began confiscating the bikes and writing citations.
Jeanne Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.