By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
They are marketed as toys but have resulted in four deaths. Now, with sales booming, the mini-motorbike has become a national menace, prompting the government to act.
How can a five-year-old child get points on a driving licence they are too young to even have? By driving a mini-motorbike.
The bikes stand barely 2ft high, can travel at speeds of up to 60mph, make an ear-splitting noise as they fly past and have become a modern-day menace.
Also known as mini-motos or pocket bikes, they are marketed as children's toys and youngsters do not require any formal training or licence to ride them.
But if a child is caught riding one on the road, pavement or in a public place they will now face prosecution, just like adults do. Any penalty points handed out by the court will be kept on file and activated as soon as they are old enough to apply for a driving licence at 17.
Insurance companies can refuse to insure them once they have passed their driving test. At the very least, their premium will be sky high. It is just one move by the government to crack down on the menace.
The machines are marketed as toys and sold as being suitable for children as young as five, but seven deaths - five young people and two adults - have already been attributed to them, says the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. It fears there will be more.
Source: Home Office
The deaths include a six-year-old boy who died when he lost control of his mini-motorbike while being chased by a dog. A two-year-old boy also suffered serious head injuries after trying to ride his brother's bike.
"These vehicles are not toys," says Home Secretary John Reid. "I want to see irresponsible drivers stopped and if necessary their bikes crushed."
The bikes normally cost about £1,000, but cheap Chinese imports - selling for as little as £100 - have recently flooded the market. Basic safety features are often omitted to minimise costs but they are still capable of speeds of 60mph or more, says the Motor Cycle Industry Association (MCIA).
Sales are booming. According to Revenue & Customs, there has been a 20-fold increase in the number of Chinese imports coming into the UK, rocketing from 7,000 in 2001 to 144,000 in 2005.
"Parents think they're toys, but they're proper racing machines and extremely dangerous in the wrong hands," says Julian Hayward, managing director of Wiltshire-based Minimoto Racing.
"Even the most watchful parents cannot prevent a tragedy and children should only be allowed to ride them at organised centres where they can receive proper tuition."
Creating a buzz
The cheap bikes are easy to buy, especially on the internet. But information on how to ride them safely is not getting to the user because the people selling them are not specialists - they are just making a quick buck, says Mr Haywood.
A leading importer of quality mini-motorbikes and a race organiser, his company sells racing bikes costing £800 to £3,000. It advises anyone who buys a bike about the race circuit in the area, but cannot force them to use it.
"Last week we had two kids who drove their mini-bikes down a dual carriageway to get here and have a go on our circuit," he says.
"That's incredibly dangerous and illegal, but I could only warn them of the dangers. They just got back on their bikes and drove home on the same dual carriageway. I ended up calling the police."
Why the bikes are so popular needs little explanation. "It's the buzz," says Mr Haywood. "The adrenalin really gets pumping when you are going 60mph on a bike that is just 18 inches off the floor."
But they can only be ridden legally on private land, with the owner's consent. Mostly they are used illegally on roads, pavements and in public parks and are being blamed for blighting people's lives.
The bikes have become such a nuisance in Coventry that the local council has given police six new off-road motorbikes costing £40,000 to hunt down the culprits. It has also seized and crushed more than 80 bikes and obtained three Asbos where people are prohibited from riding mini-motorcycles.
Apart from being dangerous, the bikes are extremely loud and in many cases break acceptable noise levels. In Reading 44% of all calls to the council's anti-social behaviour hotline are to do with the mini-motorbikes and the noise they create. Kent Police received 4,000 calls about them last year alone.
"These bikes are blighting people's lives, tearing up public parks and even causing death on roads," says Alison King, chair of the Local Government Association's (GLA) children and young people board. "Councils and police will seize and crush bikes that are driven on public land."
She's not joking. Some councils are even crushing the bikes publicly to get their message across.
TO RIDE ON THE ROAD
Must be over 17
Wear suitable crash helmet
Hold a valid driving licence
Southwark Council in London crushed mini-motorbikes seized by the authority and police in the middle of a local estate and had a blacksmith on hand to make the debris into street furniture for the area.
Within the motorcycling community, the illegal use of the bikes is also causing outrage. The MCIA says poor quality, unsafe mini-bikes and their misuse are "damaging the image of motorcycling".
"Mini-bikes are designed for young people to enjoy their first experiences of motorcycling and it is imperative the machines are safe and used in the correct environment," says spokesman Craig Carey-Clinch.
"The misuse of mini-bikes is creating a negative image of motorcycling and having a detrimental on responsible and committed riders."
But maybe the message will only get across when delivered by someone who has been injured using such a bike. Jamie Rubio, 18, from Reading, Berkshire, broke his leg after colliding with a car while using a mini-motorbike on the road. He says he could have died.
"I would tell anyone who is thinking of buying one of these bikes to think again," he says. "Not only did I break several bones in my leg, but the handlebars were also embedded in my leg."
Do the government really think that by adding points to a juniors license that they will be prevented from driving? when they reach 17 it's this type of person who would usually end up driving without insurance due to cost as opposed to being put off. Why do the current government think that by wasting time and money on useless court action that they are improving society? When the time and effort could be better spent making more facilities for the community as a whole.
Steve Loe, Bournemouth
Whilst the children should face the correct punishment, for some of the ages mentioned it would be meaningless. A child of six riding one of these unmonitored is completely irresponsible of the parents. These parents should be made an example of and should face prosecution from all possible areas.
Phil, Milton Keynes
2 days ago I saw a father and a 6 year old boy with a mini moto on the Taff trail (cycle track) in Cardiff. I told him they were not supposed to be on the cycle track. "I know" the father replied and kept on going.
As a regular and law abiding cyclist I support plans to regulate and police this unregulated "sport". After all, who is going to look after me if I get knocked off my bike by one of these? Or worse, will we only act if a pedestrian gets killed on a cycle track due to one of these mini motos?
When you purchase a new car, before you can take it from the dealer, you must prove you have insurance and a tax disc before you can drive it away. Can't something along those lines be introduced? Or what about points on the parent's driving licence?
Does no-one else think that adults riding these things just look damn stupid?! We have a group of about 10 'men' around my age (27) who ride these stupid things up and down our road, and a footpath at the bottom of our road, day in day out. They look like so absurd I laugh everytime I see them! I just cannot see the appeal for adults, and all they are succeeding in doing is showing a bad example to kids who think its a 'cool' thing to do. Just grow up and set a good example to others - if they don't do it, kids won't follow them!
Emily, Sandhurst, UK
If only these measures were used though. I saw someone on one of these get stopped by the police and then saw him again in the same place the next day. Crushing for first offences is the only way to deal with this
I guess we must be into the silly season. Far more adults and children are killed and injured riding push bikes which - gasps of horror! - are also sold as cheap toys to anyone of any age, with no mandatory regulation, registration, training or safety equipement. That the silly, petty regulations covering these machines are widely ignored is a sign that the laws should be done away with, not enforced.
Mark Saunders, Bath, England
These mini bikes are a nuisance on my estate. The noise is so loud that I cannot leave my windows open and I nearly ran over one a couple of months ago. I dread to think what would have happened if we had actually collided. How do I get Watford added to the list of "hotspots"?
Nick, Watford, UK
I have been selling midi moto's for a couple of years now, and have always stressed the need for private land, safety clothing and maintenance, as these bikes are not toys but scaled down motorcycles, they are great fun to ride, but why do some parents let their children ride irresponsibly? These bikes are here to stay now so perhaps councils should build safe places for them to be ridden, just like we have skate parks and the like.
Our local police have gone after this menace in a big way and so far have been successful. Surely the long term answer is to take this things out of circulation at source by targetting the sellers.
Whilst I agree that the government needs to tackle the illegal use of these bikes; why doesn't it invest some money developing facilities where these bikes can be ridden in safety? This type of policy might even have a knock-on effect of better road safety awareness of the children, and potentially reducing the motorcycle death toll in Britain's roads as these young riders get older.
Jerry, Basingstoke, UK
Mini Motos are not toys. They were designed as novelty bikes for Motorcycle riders. Placing your five year old on a machine that can do 50, without training or safety equipment should result in a call from social services.
Placing points on the childs future licence is not going to work, since points are only issued when a crime has been commited and since the five year old is below the age of criminal accountability.
I would prosecute the responsible adult who lets their child ride one. If you let your child play with a chainsaw/gun etc. you would have a variety of concerned professionals forming an orderly cue at your door. Why is it different in this case?
"According to Revenue & Customs, there has been a 20-fold increase in the number of Chinese imports coming into the UK, rocketing from 7,000 in 2001 to 144,000 in 2005."
Well how hard is it to ban imports of these things? It's not difficult to ban imports of dangerous fireworks or toys....
Nigel Smith, London UK
So the government thinks licence points and high premiums will put the chavs off these bikes? Do they really think these people care about licences or insurance?
Why aren't they prosecuting the parents? Firstly, the kids aren't old enough to ride then, secondly, they can only ride them on private land which they don't and thirdly, it's illegal for anyone under 16 to buy or be supplied petrol in this country!
Ian S, UK, Birmingham
If they want to ride them on the road then let them as long the bikes comply with all motorcycle leglislation, helmets, MOTs, Tax and sky high insurance. Any bikes on the road not conforming should be crushed immediately.
Simeon Lyons, Cambs England
I recently passed my full motorcycle test after 20 years of car driving. It is not easy riding a full sized street legal morocycle on the road, the control required is far in excess of car driving. These Mini Bikes look lethal compared to my road bike as your body is almost invisible to car drivers who can not see you below the bonnet level of a car. The people who take these things out on the public roads are either suicidal or need to be made a ward of court!
Iain Sample, Abingdon
I absolutely HATE these bikes and am really pleased that the problems they cause are being recognised. Its impossible to sit outside and enjoy any good weather in our area as the local children are always outside tearing around on these bikes. They are incredibly loud and actually have driven us out of our home on many occassions. It always really scares me to see young teenagers racing around on these outside my house, whilst younger children run around between the bikes. I wish we had more police patrols to stop these awful bikes.
Hannah H, Manchester, UK
I have no doubt that in areas where mini-motos are ridden recklessly they can be a real nuisance and that they can cause serious injury, but we have to be realistic about the dangers. Far more children and young adults are injured by cars, but will we be banning or crushing them? I don't think so.
Motorcycling is thrilling, exciting, scary and very dangerous. It is also immensely rewarding. It requires the utmost concentration and an acute awareness of the surfaces and obstacles around you. It's tricky enough for an adult to manage without falling off or (more likely) being knocked-off by an inattentive car driver. What are parents thinking buying these things for their kids?
Ned, Trowbridge, UK
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