Casting aside deep differences, moped dealers and their politically active opponents formally agreed yesterday to implement a nine-point plan aimed at one goal - reducing injuries to moped riders.
With dealers footing part of the bill, the safety campaign calls for placing road signs at dangerous locations, distributing maps and brochures, creating a training video and requiring all moped renters to sign a form warning them of the risks.
The message on that form, spelled out in red letters, is that "severe injuries and even death can occur when involved in a moped accident." Since 1995, accidents have claimed the lives of three moped riders. And last year, Dr. Alan Hirshberg, the director of emergency medical services at Martha's Vineyard Hospital, began a comprehensive study of accidents involving mopeds, bicycles and motorcycles. In 2000, 66 moped riders ended up in the emergency room for treatment.
The joint agreement marks a turning point in a decades-long battle over mopeds on the Vineyard. Until just last year, the two camps were polarized. Leaders of the Mopeds Are Dangerous Committee allied with State Rep. Eric Turkington to push for legislation that would restrict moped rentals to people holding a motorcycle class license.
But one dealer, Fran Alarie 3rd, is credited with reaching out to the other side when he started talking with opponents who were picketing his outlet, Two-Wheel Travelers, in Oak Bluffs in 1999. That started the ball rolling toward a more conciliatory relationship. But it took West Tisbury police chief Beth Toomey and hospital leaders to get both sides to the table - all seven moped dealers sitting down with folks who clearly hated mopeds.
The negotiations began last year and picked up speed in the last several weeks. Mr. Turkington stepped in to help and as a compromise, he offered to pull back on his legislation against the moped dealers.
"Half the people here are moped dealers who think they do a good job and just want to be left alone. Others think all mopeds should be thrown into the ocean," Mr. Turkington said yesterday in the conference room at the Steamship Authority terminal in Vineyard Haven. "No one abandoned those views, but we have come together."
For opponents, it was the pragmatic choice. Mr. Turkington's first stab at the legislation languished in committee. Another two-year wait lay ahead. "We don't know when we can get the legislation," said Sam Feldman of Chilmark, the founder of the Mopeds Are Dangerous Committee. "We're trying to do the doable. Lack of training was the primary reason for the accidents. If we do enough to educate renters, it might drastically reduce the number of accidents and the severity of accidents."
Both Mr. Alarie and Mr. Feldman pointed to the emergency room study as a pivotal event.
"It took it away from hearsay and into the statistical realm," said Mr. Feldman. That was entirely Dr. Hirshberg's goal in conducting the study. "I wanted to get people off the issue of whether we liked mopeds or not," he said at yesterday's meeting, "and onto the issue of how to make the Island safer."
More education for riders was the main recommendation to come from the doctor's study. It found that accident victims last year had received an average of seven minutes of instruction before heading out on Island roads. Of those riders, 81 per cent had never ridden a moped or motorcycle. In essence, the nine-point plan takes its cue from Dr. Hirshberg's conclusions, which called for more training and limited access to roads with high crash rates.
A map will highlight dangerous spots, most notably the bend in the road at the hospital where three moped riders have been killed since 1989. Maps will also explain distances and estimated travel times. Yellow diamond road signs with a logo of a moped about to crash are being designed. They will be placed at the bend near the hospital and at the intersection of County Road and State Road in West Tisbury. Town leaders will help identify other moped caution areas.
The risk form for moped operators warns users that Island roads are narrow and at times twisty. It also warns of sand on the road and soft shoulders. It urges riders to keep their speed under 25 miles per hour, and suggests this bit of common sense: "If you do not feel comfortable riding a moped, you should not be on one!"
Dealers also agreed to affix specially designed decals to all their mopeds that tell riders to watch for the road signs, to obey the 25 mile per hour limit and to wear a helmet. The decal also gives the Island telephone number for police and ambulance. The brochure suggests riders wear more clothing for protection in case of a fall from the moped. It also warns riders of the dangers of driving a moped when tired or dehydrated.
Another piece of the action plan calls for encouraging riders to park their mopeds in West Tisbury and ride a Vineyard Transit Authority bus to locations farther up-Island. Dealers will provide renters with VTA passes.
Several Island businesses are either donating their services to the project or offering them at reduced rates. Organizers have not set a budget for implementing all nine points, but moped dealers have each agreed to donate $500 to the project. The Mopeds Are Dangerous Committee is also planning to contribute funds, and contributions will be welcomed as soon as leaders come up with a way to receive donations.
The goal is to have these changes in effect by the beginning of summer and to measure their effectiveness with another emergency room study this year. Mr. Alarie already knows he will have to hire more staff to comply with the changes and spend more time training customers and explaining the risks.
But for the dealers, their livelihood is at stake. It's a very competitive business in the summer, said Mr. Alarie, who estimated that some 30,000 mopeds were rented on the Island in 2000. At about $45 a day, that's over $1.3 million in gross revenue.
Strong feelings still exist. Mr. Feldman sees riders on mopeds as cannon fodder, just waiting to be shot out onto the pavement. And dealers like Mr. Alarie still believe that 66 injuries out of 30,000 rentals is not a bad rate.
Dr. Hirshberg, in his two years on the Vineyard, never thought he would see the day when the dealers would sit down with the moped opponents. "Their opinions were so entrenched," he said. "If this was six months ago, I wouldn't have believed these people would be agreeing to anything."