Oak Bluffs had fewer mopeds and fewer dealers renting them this year. Now the hospital is reporting fewer people ending up in the emergency room after crashing a moped.
With moped season only a distant buzz in most people's memories, the latest figures from the Martha's Vineyard Hospital show that 35 moped accident victims were treated in the ER in the first 10 months of the year. The total for 2001 was 43 people, and the year before that, 66 crash victims were delivered to the emergency room.
The drop in moped accidents requiring medical treatment comes in a year when leaders in Oak Bluffs - hometown to all but one of the Vineyard's moped dealers - took decisive steps to cut back the fleet, revamp moped bylaws and step up enforcement of the new regulations.
The upshot is that Oak Bluffs now has just five moped rental shops, down from seven the year before. The town has also capped the number of mopeds for rent at 308, a sharp decline from the 539 allowed by licenses granted in 2001.
Oak Bluffs police Sgt. Erik Blake sees a direct link between the crackdown in town and the drop in injuries. "The [accident] numbers were lower because they restricted the actual amount of mopeds in town," said the sergeant.
Hospital emergency services director Dr. Alan Hirshberg also wondered about the connection: "Are we seeing the impact of fewer mopeds on the road?"
Just over a year ago, the situation was markedly different. After months of meetings with anti-moped activists, moped dealers agreed to beef up their training and produce a video warning renters of the deadly risk of riding mopeds, but at the same time, they were flouting the bylaws in Oak Bluffs, more than half of them operating without current licenses.
Then came the back-to-back tragedies on mopeds, both rented in Oak Bluffs. One accident in July killed a 30-year-old Virginia woman. Just over a week later, another moped crash left a 59-year-old man from Florida with permanent brain damage.
Under growing pressure, Oak Bluffs selectmen vowed to shake up the moped rental shops, limiting moped numbers to the scooters currently on the lots and drafting new bylaws aimed at safety and tighter licensing regulations.
"We wanted to kill future growth of the industry," said Todd Rebello, chairman of the selectmen. "We got some shops closed and the numbers reduced."
Selectmen also adopted a new approach, encouraging moped dealers to shift into other business ventures. Selectmen agreed to license some dealers to rent cars in addition to mopeds, hoping that the owners would ease out of the moped operation.
Last spring, selectmen also agreed to a complicated deal with moped businessman Mark Wallace, granting him a liquor license and sewer permit for a new restaurant on the harbor. In exchange, Mr. Wallace offered to evict another moped dealer, Colin Young, his tenant in a storefront on Circuit avenue extension. Suddenly, Oak Bluffs was down one moped dealer, hosting six instead of seven.
And while selectmen were working with dealers, they also wanted to tighten up enforcement after years of letting moped shops skirt bylaws and operate without licenses.
"I would say the board of selectmen did the best we could to police the moped industry," said Mr. Rebello. Selectmen worked with town counsel Ron Rappaport to craft a new bylaw that would enable officials to shut down a dealership if its license was not renewed.
Voters at annual town meeting last April backed that proposal, making a lapsed license a dead one with no chance of being reactivated. "If they don't renew their licenses, their licenses are gone," said Mr. Rebello.
With that bylaw on the books, another moped shop in Oak Bluffs is now considered closed. Mr. Young, who had operated a second moped outlet, never opened for business this year, meaning that Harbor Bike and Moped cannot reopen and rent mopeds. That move effectively whittled the number of dealerships in Oak Bluffs down to five.
Voters also did their part, unanimously supporting bylaws that reduced the number of mopeds for rent and imposed a minimum height requirement for child passengers. Earlier in the year, dealers were asked to license only the number of mopeds they had on their lots, not the inflated numbers they had claimed on their licenses for years.
"We just followed the rules and stood by them," said Don Gregory, a co-owner of Sun 'n' Fun, a moped rental shop on Lake avenue. "If we didn't and something happened, we would have no place to hang our hat."
Mr. Gregory also believes that mopeds today are safer than ones from even a few years back. "The new scooters have wider tires and are more like a motorcycle," he said. "They're safer."
Dealers also began to enforce the bylaw mandating that moped riders wear real shoes, not just sandals or flip-flops. Many dealerships sold rubber-soled water shoes to would-be renters.
"Making them get the full sneaker made them more secure on the bike," said Mr. Gregory.
Dealers continued to show the safety video, but according to Mr. Gregory, "nobody watched it." Improved accident data may also be due to the fact that dealers like Mr. Gregory steered some folks onto buses.
Between the dealers and the town, such efforts may hold out the best hope for making a difference in the long fight over moped safety on the Island.
State Rep. Eric T. Turkington will re-file proposed legislation next year that would require someone to have a motorcycle license before renting a moped. But there's little chance that the bill will meet with any success.
The issue is too "localized," Mr. Turkington told the Gazette last spring. "There are not many places where you can just walk to the side of a street and rent mopeds - only three or four in the state," he said. "And the only place really raising a ruckus on a regular basis is the Vineyard, so it is hard to get up there and change state law."
Mr. Rebello agreed that it's up to Island towns to deal with the moped issue and not wait for action in Boston that may never come.
"There are a lot of things to be done," said Mr. Rebello, pointing to more efforts over the enxt few years to encourage moped dealers to find a new focus for money-making.
"There are more lucrative businesses with less liability and risk," he said. "This is an industry on its last legs in Oak Bluffs."