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Mobtown Beat

Death to Dirt Bikes

City Destroys Illegal Vehicles, Scraps Plans to Donate Them to Charity

The City Paper Digi-Cam™
Illegal bikes awaiting disposal at an impound lot.

By Chris Landers | Posted 10/15/2008

Inside a chain-link fence at the city's Pulaski Highway impound lot, hundreds of dirt bikes, mini-bikes, and all-terrain vehicles lean against each other, awaiting destruction. So far this year, the city has seized almost 900 of the vehicles, and the Baltimore Transportation Department has destroyed about half of those, according to department spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes.

Starting this month, Baltimore police can take advantage of a new law allowing them to seize unregistered motorcycles anywhere in the city unless they are immobilized by the owner. The law is the latest attempt by the city to keep off-road vehicles from city streets, a problem that has vexed city officials for years. The rules on dirt bikes have grown sufficiently complex that a measure currently under consideration by the city would fund a public service campaign to explain them.

Under current law, dirt bikes, mini-bikes, and other unregistered motorcycles can't be ridden anywhere in the city, although it is still legal to own them. It is also illegal to fill them with gasoline in the city. Mopeds and small scooters (with engines under 50 ccs) can be ridden legally without a motorcycle license on the street, under a 2006 law change that exempts them from the city ban. Outlawed in 2000 after several fatal accidents involving dirt bikes, dirt bikes have proven difficult to do away with, due in part to a police policy that forbids officers from chasing them.

"In order to seize them," police department spokesman Sterling Clifford says, "you pretty much have to catch them in the act, and that's difficult. The police have a policy in place where they don't chase dirt bikes, and that's because a kid on a dirt bike trying to evade police is just a fatality waiting to happen."

Baltimore's laws differ from neighboring jurisdictions, where dirt bikes and similar vehicles can be ridden on private property. Richard Riley, legislative officer for the area chapter of the American Motorcyclist Association and president of the Maryland Motorcycle Dealer Association, worries that legitimate riders, who take the bikes to trails or race tracks outside the city, will be hurt by the new law.

"My take on it initially is that you're going to be punishing the good folks for a few of the bad ones," he says. "There are already laws on the books. If one would enforce the laws that are on the books, we would solve the problem."

Even disposing of the seized motorcycles has been a problem. Under the law, dirt bikes must be sold, destroyed, or donated to an overseas charity. The Transportation Department's Barnes couldn't remember the last time they were auctioned, and says they aren't sold or donated for fear that the bikes would end up back on the streets. The donation option was added to city law in 2002, sponsored by Mayor Sheila Dixon when she was City Council president; she suggested they could be sent to Africa. Barnes says the donation plan was eventually abandoned, and it is unclear how many if any bikes actually went to Africa. Barnes says it was unlikely the plan would be reconsidered; Dixon's office did not respond to inquiries about the matter.

The bikes in the impound lot will be loaded into a container and taken to a local scrap yard, which pays the city at the going rate for sheet iron--about 4 cents a pound. They will be accompanied by a city police officer, who certifies their destruction.

At least one area charity still has hopes of rescuing the bikes. Andrew Cary of Rock City Church in Baltimore County says his organization would pick the bikes up within hours if they were offered, to be fixed up by one of Rock City's parishioners and shipped at the church's expense. Dirt bikes are useful, he says, for doctors traveling between African villages, and he could fit a few in a container bound for Ghana, along with an ambulance full of medical supplies. Cary was disheartened to learn that the bikes were being destroyed.

"We always believe that those bikes that are confiscated, rather than throw them off the ocean bed or melt them down, that there is a good use," he says. "Put these into the hands of doctors that could get them out in the field. That's one of the great uses that could come from them."

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