More than joy rides

Graphic designers Thomas and Jane Wynn bought a trendy motor scooter three years ago for weekend joy rides; now they use it for their daily commute from Parkville to their jobs at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in East Baltimore. Jerry Hobbs Jr. and his father ride their new scooters over Carroll County's back roads from Taneytown to their furniture restoration business in Westminster. And restaurant consultant Steve Largent buzzes around the Baltimore area, from the Inner Harbor to Dundalk to Woodlawn, on a Chinese-made scooter while his 15-miles-to-the-gallon Ford pickup sits in the garage. Now he squeezes 100 miles out of a gallon of gas.

"I filled up the tank last week, and it only cost me $2.70!" said Largent, 50, who also lives in Parkville. "It only holds .8 gallons - it's awesome!"

With gasoline averaging $4 a gallon, more drivers like the Wynns, the Hobbses and Largent are springing for scooters and small motorcycles as much more affordable alternatives. Sales of well-known names such as Honda, Yamaha, Vespa and Suzuki shot up 24 percent in the first quarter, after relatively flat growth last year, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council, a trade group. That figure doesn't include increasingly prevalent and lower-price Asian brands such as the bright red Zongshen Metro that Largent purchased new for $1,100 from Castle Motors in Kingsville.

While Baltimore hipsters have cruised around town on retooled vintage Vespas for years, scooters are now attracting mainstream suburban riders of all ages.

The two-wheelers get from 60 to 120 miles per gallon, cost a few hundred dollars or less to insure and require minimal maintenance. Those with engine displacements of 50 cubic centimeters or less don't require license plates, insurance or an extra motorcycle endorsement on the license of the driver. With their lighter weight, automatic transmissions and feet-in-front design, they're easier to handle than more powerful motorcycles and can be less intimidating to new users. Largent said his 72-year-old mother has ridden his scooter twice, alone.

Local dealerships say they are swamped with calls and customers, as the warm-weather sales season gets under way. Mark Jurus, who drives his Vespa from Hampstead to the Moto Strada dealership he owns in Cockeysville, was so busy one recent day that he didn't have time to change out of his leather riding pants when he got to work.

"It's only truly been in the last three months that consumers have really been waking up and realizing that motor scooters are a good choice," said Jurus, 41, adding that his sales have doubled during that period. "People are realizing it's a simple, affordable solution. It's about saving money and having fun."

The prospect of an increased number of drivers used to four wheels opting for two has raised safety concerns. Overall, accidents involving motorcycles and scooters have been rising steadily since 1997, with about 88,000 injuries and close to 5,000 deaths nationwide in 2006, according to the latest statistics available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The biggest rate increases have been among drivers of heavy motorcycles with the largest engine sizes, the administration said.

New riders need to understand the risks, undergo training and wear full helmets and other protective gear, medical and transportation experts said. Riders also should try to be highly visible to automobile drivers, said Scott McKnight, a motorcycle safety researcher at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Calverton.

'They're also riskier'
"As fun as motorcycles and scooters can be, they're also riskier, and people need to understand those risks and learn to ride properly," McKnight said.

Most accidents occur in warm weather as an influx of riders takes to the roads.

"The first nice weekend in the spring, we see a big pop in motorcycle injuries that continues until the last nice weekend of the year," said Dr. Thomas Scalea, physician-in-chief at Maryland Shock Trauma Center. "How you get hurt really has to do with the fact that you're completely exposed. You get launched off a motorcycle or scooter and you essentially become a projectile."

Though their vintage half-helmets had more of a cool factor, Thomas Wynn said he and his wife recently traded them in for the more protective full-face models.

"The more I rode, the more I felt I wanted a helmet," said Wynn, 36.

The relatively inexpensive cost of scooters compared with cars and larger motorcycles, in addition to the gas savings, also attracts riders.

Lower-end Asian imports can cost as little as $800 with midrange scooters going for $2,000 to $3,000 on up to $6,000 to $8,000 for high-end models, including top-of-the-line and vintage versions of the coveted ones made by Italy's Piaggio Vespa.

"They're the Mercedes of scooters," Jurus said.

Taiwan-made Genuine Buddy scooters, which cost $2,600, are the top sellers at Moto Strada, Jurus said. Vespas come in second place and start at $4,000.

Scooters made in China and Taiwan that sell for under $2,000 are the top sellers at Hagerstown Moped, manager Wes Shiflett said. Jerry Hobbs Jr., 26, and his father, Jerry Sr., 53, bought theirs at the 28-year-old dealership on a recent Saturday. Phone inquiries about scooters have doubled since the start of May, Shiflett said.

Jerry Hobbs Sr. financed the Tomos Nitro scooter he picked out, paying $47 a month for two years.

"The gas savings will more than pay for the financial payment, and I'll also have enough money left over to keep the bike running and keep in my pocket," said Hobbs Sr. "I like it so much I put 75 miles on it Sunday just cruising around. And it only cost me 3 bucks to fill the tank up."

"Scooterists" have their own subculture in Baltimore, and they are increasingly embracing the environmental and economic benefits of their recreational hobby, said Ramsay and Momi Antonio-Barnes, a husband-and-wife team who helped organize Baltimore's annual Charm City Scooter Rally in early May.

"The price of fuel is going to continue to go up, so it's just a matter of how I'm going to get more mileage out of it," said Ramsay Antonio-Barnes, 30, who "scoots" daily from Hampden to work at a Johns Hopkins psychiatry research laboratory in Fells Point. "If you live and work in the same city, there's really no excuse not to get a scooter. It's just a lot easier to get around on."