I'm joining growing numbers of Americans who got interested in the money-saving possibilities of motorcycles and scooters as gas rose to more than $4 a gallon before its recent dip. Scooter sales jumped 50% in the first three quarters of 2008, according to the trade group the Motorcycle Industry Council, Irvine, Calif. Council spokesman Mike Mount says that according to what he hears from manufacturers and dealers, many of these new sales came from people interested in driving less in their gas-hog pickup or SUV and switching instead to the 50 mpg to 100 mpg they could get on two wheels.
I'm mounting up at the Big Apple Motorcycle School in Hicksville, N.Y.—just outside New York City—to see how hard it is as a novice rider to make the transition from four wheels to two. I decided to keep it simple and learn to ride a scooter—the $4,199 Vespa S150, one of the Italian brand's most popular models. Unlike motorcycles, scooters have automatic transmission. Thus you don't have to learn to shift gears; with a scooter you just twist the hand grip to activate the throttle and go.
As a general rule, scooters also cost less—from $800 for very small models to $9,000 or so for more powerful ones that can run at highway speeds. And with generally smaller engines than motorcycles, scooters get better gas mileage. If you want to buy a new motorcycle, initial cost will run from about $4,000 to more than $20,000 for a comes-with-everything Harley-Davidson.
Improved gas mileage isn't your only advantage with a scooter or motorcycle. Insurance generally is cheaper than for a car—with premiums rising along with the value of the two-wheeled vehicle. For instance, you might pay only $200 a year for insurance if you have an overall safe driving record and an inexpensive ride. And many cities such as San Francisco that want to encourage a cutback in automotive commuting have set aside plentiful parking spaces for motorcycles and scooters.
One reason I took a training course is that I wanted to begin with good reflexes and driving habits before I took a scooter out in traffic. With a scooter or motorcycle, you are giving up the surrounding metal structure, seat belts, and air bags that protect you in a car or pickup.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Washington, D.C., says that riders of motorcycles—a statistical category that also counts scooters—are 35 times more likely to die in a traffic accident than drivers of cars, based on comparative fatalities per miles traveled. Of those fatal accidents, NHTSA calculates that nearly half involve no other vehicle and thus likely result from some sort of error by the rider. So I am eager to start out knowing what I should be doing while riding and what to avoid. And that is what I get—slow-speed drilling in how to accelerate, stop, and turn safely before moving up to riding at more speed.
A similar start got Jennifer Bonomo of Northport, Long Island—also a student of the Big Apple school—going as a scooter rider. "I am not a risk taker and would not ride the Vespa without lessons," she recalls. She and her husband bought the $7,500 scooter, which gets 70 mpg, because, "It seemed wasteful to jump into our SUV just to go into town for errands."
When her husband Frank wanted to commute to work on two wheels, he decided he felt more comfortable on a motorcycle for the highway driving involved. So for $4,500 they bought a slightly used Kawasaki Vulcan motorcycle, which gets about 50 mpg. (Scooters generally have small 11- or 12-inch wheels; with bigger wheels motorcycles generally are more comfortable at highway speeds). The Bonomos also are quick to mention what I hear from many motorcycle and scooter owners—riding is really fun.
Most people who buy motorcycles or scooters keep their cars as well. You usually will need to haul several people at once at least occasionally. And if you live anywhere in the northern U.S., commuting on two wheels probably isn't feasible in the dead of winter. But if you want to save money on gas and riding seems like fun, follow these guidelines:
You can find a variety of instruction. Schools like the Big Apple Motorcycle School give you individual instruction with one and sometimes two teachers. It costs $450 for five one-hour sessions. Group training courses designed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) also are available in many states for about $250 to $300. To find a course near you, visit the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, Irvine, Calif.
This one seems obvious, but motorcycle groups whose members like to ride without helmets have succeeded in derailing mandatory helmet laws in numerous states. About 20 states have full helmet laws, four have no requirements, and the balance have varying degrees of regulation. NHTSA estimates that of the roughly 5,000 annual motorcycle fatalities, around 800 could have been avoided by wearing helmets.
So if saving on gas and zipping around on two wheels sounds attractive, consider whether you should go ahead and indulge your inner biker.
Jerry Edgerton is an automotive writer whose work has appeared in Money and other national magazines. He also is the author of "Car Shopping Made Easy."
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