Small-Scale Motorcycles Worry Safety Officials

Times Staff Writer

They are known to police officers as lawnmowers on two wheels, pocket bikes and minimotos.

They are so small they can be carried under one arm, so fast they can reach 70 mph and so cheap they can sell for $200 at a flea market.

Not to be mistaken for a child’s toy, these miniature motorcycles are proliferating so quickly in the state that the California Highway Patrol has branded them a traffic hazard and begun an enforcement campaign against them.

Popular with both adults and children, pocket bikes -- as they are commonly known in the industry -- stand only 16 to 20 inches tall. Typically, they are powered by a two-stroke lawnmower-type engine, have a pull-cord starter and weigh 35 to 60 pounds. Some are battery-operated.

To ride, the driver must be contorted in a squatting position only inches above the pavement, eyes level with the bumper of oncoming cars.


Police say the noisy little gasoline-powered vehicles -- scale models of popular racing motorcycles and street choppers -- rip through residential neighborhoods, endanger pedestrians on sidewalks, dart in and out of traffic, and are difficult for motorists to see.

“In the last six months, we’ve seen an explosion of these things,” said Officer Jay Johnson of the Milpitas Police Department in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has written newspaper columns about the craze.

The California Highway Patrol classifies them as motorcycles under the Vehicle Code, and they are subject to ordinary rules of the road. But unlike full-size motorcycles, the mini-cycles usually are sold without required safety features, including brake lights, red rear reflectors, mirrors, turn signals, a horn and approved tires. They cannot be registered and licensed.

Because the craze is relatively new, the CHP has no estimate of the numbers in California or how many accidents have involved the little machines, most of which are made in China.

But CHP officials believe that unless public education and special enforcement campaigns are imposed, the proliferation of the two-wheelers may bloom into a statewide threat to public safety.

“There are more and more complaints about them from all over the state,” said CHP Capt. Chris Jenkins, whose agency issued a special alert to all local law enforcement departments. “Riders of all ages drive them. We’re not talking just children.”

“You’d be crazy to drive in the streets of Los Angeles on something that can barely be seen,” said Lt. Steve Allen, a Los Angeles Police Department watch commander in the Foothill Division.

The CHP alert cited “concerns” over the use of pocket bikes on public roadways and urged departments to crack down: “Individuals operating these vehicles on a highway should be cited for violation” of safety equipment laws and a dozen other specific offenses.

Pocket bikes are popular among competitive racers in Europe, but were never intended for use on public roadways, Jenkins said. Certain high-quality racing models can hit speeds of 70 mph and cost several thousand dollars.

In California, pocket bikes are sold legally but are to be used on private property only. Some dealers advertise pocket bikes as “motorized scooters,” which can be driven on the streets under limited circumstances.

Cheap knockoffs of European racing models are sold online and from such places as neighborhood moped and scooter shops, swap meets and street corners, Jenkins said. In advertisements, retail prices tend to hover between $300 and $400. Some cycles can putt along at only a few miles an hour, but others can zoom to speeds of 30 mph or more.

One Internet sales pitch claimed that “kids as young as 4 years old have successfully learned to ride the less powerful models,” and other ads aggressively market the motorized bikes to the 4- to 8-year-old crowd and to enthusiasts seeking “an extreme feel of the road.”

Some advertisements contain safety alerts and warn that the vehicles may not be driven legally on public highways -- but others do not.

“The rugged little pocket rockets are small enough to carry under one arm and fit in a car trunk, and can be raced in parking lot competitions,” one Internet ad boasted. It claimed that the little bikes “can often go faster in mph than they weigh in lbs.” and are “ultra-legal fast and competition tough.”

But the LAPD’s Allen and Johnson, the Milpitas police officer, reported that often consumers are not told by dealers that most pocket bikes are illegal on the street. Allen said parents angrily protest tickets issued to their children for riding on the street, only to learn too late that the bikes violate traffic laws.

Drivers can be fined $96 per violation from a list of more than a dozen possible offenses. They may also face costly impoundment fees if police seize their machines. In Milpitas, said Johnson, a mini-cycle owner recently was handed an impound bill for $1,200.

Johnson said he often spots pocket bikers driving against traffic, either on the streets or sidewalks.

“A few weeks back, a kid in full race leather was heading down the sidewalk in the wrong direction. By the time I got turned around, he was gone,” Johnson said.

In the San Fernando Valley recently, Allen said, “We arrested a guy on a pocket bike for ‘driving under the influence.’ ”

He said officers in the Valley see increasing numbers of pocket bikes, many of them sold “like hotcakes” from a resident’s house. Allen said mini motorcycles are not a problem now, but officers believe they soon will become troublesome.

Bobby de la Rosa, owner of, a home-based online business in San Bernardino, said he recently added pocket bikes to his line of motorized scooters because their popularity had “taken off like a rocket.... The style of these little bikes appeals to young kids.”

His website urges parents to exercise responsibility in purchasing a pocket bike and to first check local and state laws to determine whether they are legal. “I don’t tell them [that]. It’s the owner’s responsibility to find out what the law is,” de la Rosa said.

De la Rosa said he was unaware of the new enforcement campaign against violators. He agreed that safety did not seem to be a major issue now, but warned, “Eventually, it will have its moment. You’re going to get wild kids out there.”