Day before yesterday a moped crashed into a pickup on a stretch of road I know well: the stretch where it’s South Road, Chilmark, on one side and State Road, West Tisbury, on the other. This is where Rainbow Farm used to be, where the Grey Barn and Farm is now, and where President Obama and his family have stayed on their recent visits.
Moped accidents aren’t uncommon in the summer months. This one was unusual in two respects. The moped driver, Alex Garcia, was killed. He wasn’t inexperienced, either: he worked for Sun & Fun, a moped rental business in Oak Bluffs, and was the brother-in-law of Don Gregory Jr., Sun & Fun’s owner.
After a serious moped accident, the cry always goes up: “Ban mopeds! Ban moped rentals!” This time the demand seems muted, at least in the comments made on the websites of the Vineyard Gazette and the Martha’s Vineyard Times. Both drivers had Vineyard connections. Alex Garcia wasn’t the stereotypical moped rider whom so many of us love to ridicule. It’s harder to take potshots at people when, even if you don’t know them personally, you probably have friends who are friends of theirs.
Most everyone on Martha’s Vineyard has an opinion about mopeds, however, and most of those opinions are negative. MOPEDS ARE DANGEROUS bumper stickers are a common sight on Vineyard roads. They feature the international “no” symbol superimposed on a panicked rider flying off a moped.
The stickers surfaced during a grassroots anti-moped campaign in the late 1980s. I was a barely fledged year-rounder at the time and at first I didn’t get it: Why were people so fired up about mopeds when other problems were more pressing? I, along with an estimated 20 percent of the island’s year-round population, was moving twice a year because I couldn’t find an affordable year-round rental, but it seemed as though the only ones who took this problem seriously were those whose lives were dislocated by it. Now “the housing crisis” is on everyone’s lips. Back then? Not so much.
Then it dawned on me that banning mopeds was a perfect political issue. Consider:
- Moped riders are day-trippers. We don’t know any of them personally. They don’t vote or pay taxes here. They don’t even spend much money here: mopeds are cheap transportation, and moped riders are cheap.
- The owners of moped rental agencies do vote and pay taxes here, but they are few and (in the late ’80s, when the first big anti-moped campaign arose) not very well liked.
- Banning mopeds was for the moped riders’ own good. Statistics about moped accidents were printed in the papers, along with accounts of the more serious accidents. Both the reporting and public opinion had a couple of notable subtexts. One was “if the hospital’s emergency room is so busy with moped casualties, who will take care of your grandpa when he has a heart attack?” The other was “moped riders are too stupid to take care of themselves.” And wouldn’t moped riders be better off if they rented bicycles? Most of them are so out of shape.
- Mopeds are a nuisance. They annoy almost everybody.
I learned a lot about island politics from observing the anti-moped movement, and about politics in the wider world as well. On Martha’s Vineyard, mopeds are a largely symbolic issue. Like symbolic issues elsewhere, this one makes lots of people feel good and involved and united, but it also functions like whitewash, distracting the eye from structural problems that are harder to address, never mind fix.
This particular accident didn’t involve any of the usual scapegoats: bad weather, excessive speed, alcohol, texting, operator inexperience . . . When someone dies in an accident, it’s hard to accept that nothing could have prevented it and nothing can be done to keep something similar from happening again. Even my pet solution — to require that moped operators hold a motorcycle permit — wouldn’t have helped: Alex Garcia almost certainly would have had one had they been required.
Widen the roads, say some. Many Vineyard roads are notoriously narrow and twisty. They have a hard time accommodating the summer’s car, truck, bicycle, motorcycle, and moped traffic. But widening roads almost inevitably leads to high speeds and that we do not need.
I think of the several times I’ve come within a hair’s breadth of a serious accident. So far I’ve always been lucky. Sometimes luck runs out. Sometimes there’s nothing that could have been done to prevent it. Sitting still with that knowledge is hard.
I’m sorry to hear of the loss of one of your residents in such a tragic way. As a visitor to the island, and sometimes a cyclist, we are very aware of the dangers, the narrow roads, the need to pay strict attention to your surroundings. We were visiting once during what I will assume was a big bike race and the roads on that day were a bit crazy, expecially heading out toward the Gay head light…I thought summer months on the Vineyard for a bike race, knowing the traffic that the island suffers, is not the best idea. We’ll be there in a few weeks time, and I will discourage my son from any moped rental. We have not done it yet and I plan to keep it that way.
The rising hill past the Town line sign, where the moped operator is said to have lost control, has quite a stretch where the shoulder of the road is eroded away. There’s a 4″ to 8″ dropoff at the edge of the pavement. If the scooter went off the road in that section, it’s no wonder he lost control of his vehicle. There are many places along our roads, both State roads and Town roads, where similar dropoffs have been allowed to form. Each one of these locations is an accident waiting to happen.
MassDOT considers a travel lane, from the center line to the white fog line to be substandard if it is 14′ or less in width. It is not considered wide enough to accommodate a cyclist and a pedestrian side by side in the same lane. As such when passing a cyclist (or moped) a motorist is required by law to pass a cyclist as they would any other vehicle by passing completely out of the lane and not returning into the lane until the motorist has completely passed the cyclist. If it is not safe to pass a cyclist (or moped) then a motorist is required to wait until it is safe to pass.
We hear people talk about widening the road. There are no bike lanes on Martha’s Vineyard and cyclists who by law fall under the category of “Vehicle Operators” are by law not required to ride on these narrow shoulders. They are not considered a part of the travel lane. Riding in the gutter is the most dangerous place to ride a bicycle. Motorists will try to squeeze between a cyclist and on coming traffic when there is not enough room to do so. You want to put in proper “Bike Lanes”? A “Bike Lane is a minimum of 48” added to each side of the road way.
This is good info. Thanks, David. Totally agree about riding in “the gutter.” For about 10 years I regularly crossed roads and rode short distances down them on horseback. Many motorists were careful and courteous. A few were horrible. “Slow down and pass wide” should be common sense, but it isn’t always, and I had a few close calls.
Do you think bike lanes are feasible on island roads, especially up-island roads? I’ve got my doubts. My perception is that wider roads make for faster traffic — not what we need.