Accident highlights increasingly problematic scooter issues, law enforcement says

Thursday, September 13, 2012
A mini-van passes Stephen Kennedy as he travels north on Sprigg Street on his 50cc scooter Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 12, 2012 in Cape Girardeau. Kennedy looks both ways while at every intersection to check for oncoming traffic. (Laura Simon)

The headlights were bearing down and the speed limit had just shot up to 60 mph, but Perry Smith wasn't worried.

As he cruised down Highway 25, the longtime high school teacher assumed the driver behind him would do what most did when they came up to their relatively slow-moving counterparts -- flick a quick signal, dart into the other lane and pass him and his scooter on by.

That didn't happen this time.

The 22-year-old driver of the other vehicle, he learned later, was eating a taco as she drove and she didn't see him. The 4,000-pound Chevrolet never slowed, hitting him directly from behind. Smith was knocked up on the roof of her car, his head hitting the windshield as he flew. He dropped to the hard pavement, injuring his back and giving him a severe case of road rash.

His scooter rolled underneath her Chevy, and both caught fire.

"Had I not been wearing a helmet, I don't imagine I would be alive," Smith said Wednesday, two years after the incident. "I heard about what happened with the college student. My heart goes out to her. It's just an awful tragedy. I wish she had been wearing a helmet. She'd probably be in a lot better shape."

As it is, Meg Herndon, the 21-year-old Southeast Missouri State University student, remained in critical condition Wednesday at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, according to spokeswoman Ann Vassett. The senior from Fenton, Mo., was airlifted there Sunday after a motor vehicle accident that involved a full-size four-by-four pickup colliding with the scooter she was riding at the corner of Sprigg Street and Normal Avenue.

She was not wearing a helmet, law enforcement confirmed in the days since. But officers have been quick to point out that, unlike those who ride motorcycles, scooter riders are not required to by Missouri law.

And Herndon, a popular soccer player who is studying to be a nurse, is nowhere near the rule's exception. Most local scooter drivers don't wear a helmet.

Sgt. Kevin Orr, who heads the Cape Girardeau Police Department's traffic division, said the city has an "extremely large" number of scooters on the road right now. They also are involved in several accidents each year, he said. According to police records, 11 scooters were in crashes in 2010, 14 in 2011 and five so far this year.

But a lot of them take place in the warmer months after the university resumes classes, he said, because many of those who ride scooters in town tend to be college students. While helmets may not be a legal requirement, Orr said he'd like to see scooter drivers volunteer to wear them.

"If I was going to give you the best and safest advice," Orr said, "in my opinion, helmets ought to be required for scooter riders. They're on two wheels as opposed to four. If they do everything they're required to do, it's still not as safe as being in a four-wheeled vehicle."

Doug Richards, director of the university's police department, said he knows students are driving the scooters in droves. Almost 400 students have registered as scooter riders this semester. He expects that number to continue to grow in the coming years, considering that scooters don't require insurance, can be bought for about $1,000, don't call for state registration and are cheap on gas.

"It's all about the economics," Richards said. "We've seen the numbers just escalate, and it is posing a major safety problem. It's becoming a real issue."

Scooters offer little crash protection, are sometimes hard to see and have few safety requirements, he said.

"When that motorized vehicle goes up against cars and trucks, it's going to lose," he said.

The university sends letters to students who register scooters offering safety tips, such as being familiar with the vehicle, making sure all components are functioning and to follow the rules of the road, Richards said. He's also interested, he said, with working with city officials to see if making helmets required can be mandated by law.

Still, Todd Rapp, owner of Campus Scooters in Cape Girardeau, is dubious that anything short of that will work. He sells 300 to 400 new scooters a year -- more than half of those to college-age buyers -- and he's tried to encourage buyers to wear helmets. He's even had promotions where he has given helmets to new owners, but few seem interested.

"They just don't want to wear a helmet," he said. "The guys don't think it looks cool, and the girls say it will mess up their hair. They need to realize that when their head hits concrete at 30 miles an hour, it's going to hurt."

Coincidentally, Rapp was nearby when Herndon had her accident and he rushed to the scene. He remembers seeing her lying still on the street from an impact so hard it knocked off her shoes.

"That's not something that you forget," he said.


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