DECATUR - Motorized bicycles sound like a win-win.
As gas prices accelerate toward $4 a gallon, these regular pedal bicycles fitted with little gas engines can zip riders around effortlessly while achieving 100 miles per gallon. And, best of all, many of the bikes' fans believe, you don't need a license, insurance or registration to ride one.
The Decatur Police Department, however, begs to differ, and they're ready to write the traffic tickets to prove it if motorized bike riders hit the road without a driver's license, insurance and registration.
At issue is one question: When is a motorized bicycle a "low-speed gas bicycle" and when is it classified as a moped?
The police, quoting Illinois law, said a "low-speed gas bicycle" has fully operable pedals and a gasoline motor of less than 1 horsepower. Its top speed must be limited to 20 mph while carrying a person who weighs 170 pounds. If that is an accurate description of your motorized bicycle, you can ride it - on the road only - without a license, insurance and registration as long as you are 16 or older.
But the law defines a moped, with or without optional pedal power, as having a top speed of 30 mph and an engine no bigger than 50cc that does not require the rider to shift gears. Moped riders need a driver's license, insurance and registration to be legal.
Police officers pulling over the typical hopped-up motorized bike ridden around Decatur said they are always fitted with 49cc engines which, law enforcement claims, typically produce more than 2 horsepower and are capable of speeds above 20 mph. The police don't have a problem with that but said motorized bicycles with that kind of performance have crossed the line into the moped universe and are subject to moped rules.
And to be in strict accordance with the law, moped riders must also wear eye protection and their machines need a front light, rear lights and turn signals.
Patrol officer George Kestner said enforcing the rules will help keep the roads safer for everyone.
"We're finding a lot of (motorized bike) riders are suspended or revoked for previous DUIs, (driving under the influence)," Kestner said. "They are using them to get to and from work because they think they don't need a license."
A case in point would be the story of Chas Burns from Harristown and his 49cc motorized bicycle. Burns, 37, who has served prison time and whose license has been suspended after various traffic offenses, is the first to admit he hasn't always made good choices in life.
"I made some pretty bad mistakes and some pretty stupid decisions," he said. "But I am not that person anymore."
Part of his personal renaissance was acquiring some means of transportation so he had a chance of getting to a job and generally getting around. With all of the other forms of personal motorized transport barred because of his license situation, Burns built a motorized bike and thought he was good to go.
He got pulled over in Decatur in July after a police officer said he measured the bike's speed at more than 30 mph. Burns was ticketed for driving while license revoked, operating an uninsured vehicle, having no registration and not wearing goggles. Police seized the bike as evidence. Burns then attempted to fight the tickets on the grounds that his motorized bike was not a moped. He appeared to have won the day Aug. 11, when the Macon County State's Attorney's Office filed a motion to dismiss the charges on the grounds that the moped statute "does not apply to such a vehicle."
But after conversations with the police department, the charges were reinstated Aug. 20. Burns wound up going to court and being convicted in a bench trial April 8, at which he was given a conditional discharge for 12 months, ordered to perform 300 hours of community service, fined and ordered to pay court costs.
Burns still said his motorized bike was not powerful enough to be classified as a moped. "You can't gauge how much horsepower an engine has by its size," he added, insisting his engine had less than 1 horsepower. "They didn't test it, and they didn't' even say it was over 1 horsepower."
He said he only weighs 140 pounds and could make the bike go faster if he pedals as well as uses the engine on flat ground or downhill. Burns said he is now marooned without any form of transportation since the loss of his bike and feels he is the victim of an injustice.
"It's an intentional disregard of my legal right by law," (to ride motorized bikes) he said in a letter to the Herald & Review.
Other enthusiasts who have built motorized bikes also don't believe they qualify as mopeds. Kevin Osborne, who lives in Decatur, said the motors are designed for cruising up to 20 mph and do not make bicycles morph into mopeds. And he said the bikes can be ridden just like a regular bicycle when the motor is not running. "It's a motor-assisted bicycle, that's all it is," he said.
Osborne, 49, thinks Illinois should be doing more to encourage the use of motorized bicycles, which he said pollute far less than cars and offer people the chance to escape crippling gas prices. He said designated bicycle lanes to protect riders on public roads would also be a good thing.
"Instead of throwing up roadblocks to people riding motor-assisted bicycles, we should be praising them," he said.
Kestner says he can understand the advantages of motorized bicycles and agrees that they do offer extraordinary value in terms of mileage. "But riders have to do it lawfully or they are going to get tickets," he said.