They look like motorcycles, but they're regulated like bicycles. They have tiny motors supposedly incapable of propelling them faster than 20 mph. They require no special license, no special operator training, and no insurance. These things are accidents looking for a place to happen.
Motorcycle or bicycle: can you tell the difference?
Motorcycle or bicycle: can you tell the difference?

These motor-assisted cycles look like fun, and reports suggest they have increased personal mobility dramatically. Aging or weak-kneed cyclists can now venture further from home without fear exhaustion. They can even tote home a modest load of groceries, for example. That's all good.

The problem is some of the clowns who drive them retain their bicyclist mentality while in command of a machine with a much higher calamity quotient.

I've noticed more of them appearing in my community, and I have already had a run in with one. I was on my vintage Yamaha Virago -- a real motorcycle -- when a guy on one of these crotch-rocket look-alikes blew through a four-way stop and nearly hit me.

From my perspective, it looked like any other motorcycle approaching from my left, so I naturally assumed its driver would obey the stop sign. Silly me. What I didn't know was that the driver thought like a cyclist -- that is, someone who drives a bicycle and is therefore apparently above the rules of the road.

I had just launched and wasn't yet out of first gear as he cut directly across my bow, with his hand up in the ubiquitous biker's (motorcyclist's) wave, like there was absolutely nothing wrong with what he had just done.

As vehicle operators, we make assumptions all the time -- like, that the other driver approaching a red light or stop sign will actually stop. We don't naturally wait until the driver has stopped before proceeding. We pull through the intersection when it's our turn to go, technically pulling in front of a moving vehicle. But assumptions and previous experience tell us it's okay to do so because the other driver is bound by the same rules we are.

Not so anymore, apparently.

Various jurisdictions across North America treat these motor-assisted cycles differently, but for the most part they are regulated as bicycles. Sure, bicyclists are also required to obey the rules of the road, but few do, in my experience. And because there is no license involved, and no insurance required (in many jurisdictions), there are few consequences to breaking a little law here or there.

Except for the guy who gets hit. These bikes weigh in at something close to 200 lb. Add a 150- to 200-lb rider and you have the potential to do some damage at even a 20 mph impact.

Blurring the Lines

Regulations pertaining to these things vary depending where you are in North America. There seem to be two distinctions in the bikes themselves that factor into the regulation. There are motor-assisted cycles, which have small electric motors and 20 mph speed limits. They also have pedals (which qualify them as bicycles), though it's pretty clear they are not intended for normal use.

Stepping up from the pedal-equipped bikes, you find the limited-speed motorcycles. These have larger gasoline engine (150 cc), are capable of up to 45 mph, and are generally treated as motorcycles under regulation.

Many of them look very similar, thus blurring the distinction between to the two for other road users and probably the cops too. Some of them closely resemble actual motorcycles.

For the observer -- the people who must share road space with these things -- there's the problem of expectation. Most of us would be inclined to presume the thing is a motorcycle in the standard definition, and would react to it accordingly -- that is, assuming the other guy is playing by the same rules. But the operator who thinks of himself as a bicyclist, and is therefore not inclined to pay attention to things like stop signs, sends very confusing messages to other drivers.

I raise this only to bring awareness to the potential for misinterpretation. In my case, I made the mistake of assuming the other driver had due regard for the rules of the road. Had I been in a big truck, and one of these guys came whizzing up along side me in the course of a right turn, I'd have creamed him.

Many bicyclists are their own worst enemies when it comes to road behavior. They don't obey the rules, and so put themselves at considerable risk. They weave through slow traffic passing on the left and right, and they complain loudly (if they still can) when struck by an opening car door.

It worries me that now we have people driving powered cycles which are heavier, can go faster, and move more inexperienced riders over greater distances.

Keep your eyes peeled for these things in your travels. If you ever hit one, you'll be in a world of trouble because "bicyclists" are still a protected species -- even though they often don't deserve it.