Moped Lessons

Peter DeMarco’s “Who Taught You to Drive?” column recently took up the subject of mopeds. This topic is timely, since people are discovering these small motorcycles now that gas is more than $4/gallon. He also brings up two issues related to non-motorized bicyclists: passing between lanes of stopped traffic and parking on Boston sidewalks.

DeMarco does not quote it, but the legal definition of motorized bicycle in Massachusetts is “a pedal bicycle which has a helper motor, or a non-pedal bicycle which has a motor, with a cylinder capacity not exceeding fifty cubic centimeters, an automatic transmission, and which is capable of a maximum speed of no more than thirty miles per hour.” So a moped (pedal bicycle with a motor) is a motorized bicycle, but so is a small motorcycle with no pedals. Curiously, the Registry of Moter Vehicles has decided that a pedal bicycle with an electric motor is not a moped, even though this statutory definition would certainly seem to include such vehicles, since the statute says that any pedal bicycle with a helper motor is a moped.  Even more curiously, some legislators (on advice of misinformed police, perhaps) were convinced that mini motorcycles are neither mopeds nor motorcycles, and so came up with a third category, motorized scooter, which is “any 2 wheeled tandem or 3 wheeled device, that has handlebars, designed to be stood or sat upon by the operator, powered by an electric or gas powered motor that is capable of propelling the device with or without human propulsion” but is not “a motorcycle or motorized bicycle or a 3 wheeled motorized wheelchair.” Got it? The rules they created for motorized scooters are even more discriminatory than those for bicycles (motorized or not).

But back to DeMarco’s article. He correctly points out that “it’s illegal for moped drivers to go faster than 25 miles per hour, no matter what the posted speed limit is.” This seems to me to be unfair and discriminatory. Bicyclists often go faster than 25 mph.

When DeMarco uses police officers as an authority, he often puts forth assertions which don’t match the law.  DeMarco writes, “Maffei, of the Cambridge Police, said that moped riders often zip to the front of the line at a red light by riding between two lanes of cars. But riding between cars is illegal – motorcyclists and bicyclists aren’t supposed to do it, either – and carries a $25 fine.”  But that’s not what the law says.

Chapter 89 Section 4A is about as clear as it gets for Mass. traffic laws: “Section 4A. When any way has been divided into lanes, the driver of a vehicle shall so drive that the vehicle shall be entirely within a single lane, and he shall not move from the lane in which he is driving until he has first ascertained if such movement can be made with safety. The operators of motorcycles shall not ride abreast of more than one other motorcycle, shall ride single file when passing, and shall not pass any other motor vehicle within the same lane, except another motorcycle.”

So drivers of motorcycles (but not bicycles or motorized bicycles) cannot pass another motor vehicle within the same lane (except another motorcycle), and all drivers must drive within one lane, and yield when changing lanes. This means that an operator of a narrow vehicle that is not a motorcycle can overtake another vehicle within the same lane, provided that he or she obeys the rules for overtaking (chiefly, maintaining a safe distance). If you think the statute means that a bicyclist or moped rider cannot pass a line of stopped cars within the same lane under any circumstances, then it must also mean that a motorist cannot pass a bicyclist without completely changing lanes under any circumstances. Motorists would not tolerate such an interpretation.

What about parking mopeds? “Tinlin, Boston’s transportation commissioner, also said his staff can’t issue parking tickets to mopeds parked on sidewalks. However, Boston has rules against chaining bicycles to posts and parking meters. If a moped owner chains her vehicle, parking officials might cut the chain and tow the vehicle.” Ah! Those mysterous rules again! I will give $100 to anyone who can find me a published copy (published before today, that is). The previous version I heard is that it is illegal to affix a bike to any “city asset.” This would presumably include bike racks (unless they are a liability). But I have search in vain in the municipal code. Mr. Mayor, you want to promote bicycling. Could you publish fair rules about bicycle parking on city sidewalks, rather than have your officials repeatedly assert a secret policy to remove locked bicycles without notice?

I am curious if police officers treat mopeds as motorcycles rather than bicycles in terms of traffic enforcement. That is, will they cite moped riders from time to time, or ignore them completely? Is there a way of citing a moped in the Uniform Citation book?

1 Comment

  1. The Legislature has provided no definition of the term “automatic transmission” — and so a judge would have to answer it if it arises as a practical matter. Would a judge rule for operational definition: “no need for the operator to shift gears” — or a design specification? An electric motor does not need any gear shifting, as, unlike an internal-combustion engine, it can supply torque from a dead stop. The operational definition would, then, apply to the electrified bicycle, but the design specification, “a device to transfer power from an internal-combustion engine without the need for manual gear shifting,” would not.

    As Paul notes, the statutes include a definition for “motorized bicycle”, but this rests on a shaky foundation, as there is no definition of “bicycle.” The Highway Department regulations do include such a definition, and a rather good one, but these regulations apply only on state highways. The Highway Department, in this case and others, has gone to some lengths to fill in gaps in the statutes.

    Massachusetts traffic laws — an accretion, never conformed to any version of the Uniform Vehicle Code — and it shows.

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