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.