New coalition discusses options for moped reform

Thu, 08/27/2020 - 6:30pm
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Recognizing that Block Island has been facing an almost kaleidoscopic amount of social, economic, and public relations setbacks this summer, a new coalition called #RespectBI held a Zoom meeting with more than 130 attendees to address thoughts and strategies on moped reform, safety and enforcement. There were a broad range of options shared at the meeting, which was held on Thursday, Aug. 20.

“I think as a movement, we can make change,” said Sarah Bacon, the founder of the #RespectBI coalition. The primary goal was to have new moped safety guidelines in place by 2021, said Bacon. During the virtual meeting, Bacon announced as of Thursday, Aug. 20 there had been 55 moped accidents for the 2020 season, “compared to 34 accidents last year from Labor Day to Memorial – an increase of 62 percent.”

Bacon introduced the following panelists: Block Island Medical Director Dr. Tom Warcup, Police Chief Vin Carlone, Councilor Sven Risom, former Rescue Squad Capt. Lisa Sprague, traffic expert Alan Davis, resident and retail manager Thea Monje, real estate agent Gail Ballard Hall, and Creative Director Michael Rock. Moped operator John Leone was originally scheduled to speak, but “was in a meeting with lawyers,” said Bacon.

Bacon asked the panelists to provide a statement on their thoughts towards the moped operations and increased accidents:

Dr. Tom Warcup

Dr. Tom Warcup spoke as the first panelist of the night, sharing a statement on moped operations and reform from a medical perspective.

“Moped accidents have been a continual challenge for many years. A 50cc [moped] can produce a 40 mph rate – [extreme] injuries. To date, [there are] 55 moped accidents, and 11 transfers to trauma centers,” said Warcup.

Warcup cited the emotional and physical toll that has been placed on the entire medical and emergency staff with increased calls. He also noted that he ad to make the calls to the families who lost loved ones in the recent fatal accidents.

“I hope not to make any more,” said Warcup.

Police Chief Vin Carlone

Chief Carlone shared his concern on the increased accidents and congestion on the island, stating “I saw this coming as early as February and put it in writing,” he stated.

“We need to get the families back here. This is a safe place. We are not equipped as a police department [for these activities]. [We have] three officers injured, with one needing surgery… What we do not have is a traffic division. There needs to be a separate traffic division to deal with this… This is not a moped problem; this is a congestion, traffic problem. We need everyone to be driving and operating politely,” said Carlone.

Town Councilor Sven Risom

Risom joined the meeting to voice his message as a “concerned citizen.”

“I am not here to speak as a Town Councilor. The reason I am here is because I want to focus on how to make Block Island the lovely place when I had moved here 10 years ago. As everyone talked about, there have been some challenges to the loveliness this past year. This is a conversation that is over 35 years old — a very complex, complicated, and legally entwined dialogue,” said Risom.

Risom also offered the idea in formulating a group concentrated on moped reform “that can work across organizations.

“This takes time and energy. My hope is that we can all work together to make this place that we love and work across,” said Risom.

Former Rescue Squad Capt. Lisa Sprague

Sprague has seen for many years the trauma and treatment that is involved with moped and traffic accidents. Sprague has also been fighting against the moped operations since the 1980s.

“I don’t believe anyone on the island has fought the battle longer than I have… I feel I can speak knowledgeably on this situation. [This was the] same discussion that started in 1984. What’s wrong with this picture? Since the 1980s, our community has been held hostage... Take the rental mopeds out of the question and see how the quality of life improves. [The moped operators] would not fight so tenaciously if it was not profitable for them. But for the [Medical Center, volunteer fire and rescue, emergency services] it is overwhelming,” said Sprague.

Traffic expert Alan Davis

Davis has been investigating traffic and fatality reports for years, and offered some insight into understanding moped accidents and reports.

“I’m a data guy. Back in 2015, I started a research paper and I submitted an 85-page report that covered every single item here and how to improve upon those issues to make the island safer,” said Davis.

Davis added he has investigated “hundreds and hundreds of fatalities,” and started to take into consideration the many factors involved in moped accidents such as double passengers, the surrounding environment, road conditions, and alcohol consumption of drivers on mopeds.

“Double crashes are always more severe,” said Davis.

Resident and retail manager Thea Monje

Monje, an island resident and manager of Beachcomber, has family members who have seen the trauma first hand as volunteer responders: her father Pete Monje was a Rescue Squad Captain, and her brother Silas Monje is on the Rescue Squad.

“All moped accidents are 100 percent preventable. There is no reason to have this season after season. The goal needs to be harm reduction and centered on the implementation of safety measures… this is not an area of the world where anyone should be learning to drive in the middle of the summer. These renters need to be held to the highest standard,” said Monje.

Monje added to not discriminate or focus on certain groups of individuals that come out to the island to rent mopeds; rather, focus on what the community can do to protect all individuals.

“Just in response to what the chief said – I really think our conversation shouldn’t be rooted around the demographics of visitors we have here. It is our job as a community to protect them. It is not our job to judge – everyone should be welcome to come here. We want to have the conversations to see ethically responsible businesses in the future and to minimize injury. Block Island is the best place on earth, and we want to make sure people don’t leave in body bags,” said Monje.

Real estate agent Gail Ballard Hall

Long-time real estate agent Ballard Hall provided insight as a resident who has lived out on Block Island for many years with her family.

“I remember this battle and the residents working hard. I did reach out to other broker owners on the island - just curious to see what people were thinking and from their clients. A lot came back with age limits [for riding a moped], the one person per moped, helmets, and footwear,” said Ballard Hall.

Ballard Hall also brought up that the moped operators train their riders on a town-owned road, Weldon’s Way, and how this has been an area of concern for many years.

“I don’t understand how the town allows all the moped training on a town road… I also think of this as a carnival ride: if you have a ride that is that destructive, it gets shut down. The island was not designed for this type of traffic,” said Ballard Hall.

Creative Director Michael Rock

Rock, who is a creative director and professor at Columbia University, stated how crucial it is to create a branded image for a community. Rock shared a presentation slide for his statement.

“Block Island, we have a problem. Are we actually delivering what we are promising or delivering?” asked Rock. He stated how Block Island has been known for its pristine environments and beaches, but with the increased moped accidents, traffic congestion, and alcohol related activities, it doesn’t appear the island is presenting their true image.

“Disappointed visitors feel cheated and don’t come back,” added Rock.

“To resolve what we are promising – we either have to change what we promise, or change the decongestion, crowd control, and vehicle limits. You can’t protect the landscape and neglect the culture… We have to ask ourselves where we are headed. A brand is a plan for a possible future,” said Rock.

“If you don’t state what you want, you will always be what you are. I’m arguing that you can’t have Block Island with mopeds… We can make changes here and change this place in a meaningful way. [We] call on the operators – this is a historic opportunity with change. Instead of lawsuits – be a visionary to change this disastrous path. The citizens of the island are begging you to step up,” said Rock.

Resident Doug Michel

Michel, who was on the Town Council in the 1990s, was also involved with the early legal battles against moped operations. Bacon called on Michel as an audience member to share how restrictive the process can be for banning mopeds on the island.

“Our legislation is given to us by the state of Rhode Island… the state gives and takes. Towns can’t really do anything, until the state gives them the power.”

Michel also noted that Sprague “for many years, went up to the Rhode Island State House and testified, and it got no where…. the town has to stay within a state legislation.”

He stressed that “the state would not support the [moped] ban in the past,” as this process was viewed as putting businesses out of production.

Michel referred to an event in 1994, when the town changed their ordinance on the number of mopeds that could be allowed to rent per moped operator.

“We were sued for $78 million [by the moped operators]. At the time, First Warden Kim Gaffett led the discussion, and came to a compromise of 34 mopeds for each operator,” said Michel. He added the moped accidents stayed down during that time, but are continually “climbing up again.”

“We don’t control the entire future, but there are a lot of things to do,” said Michel. He mentioned in terms of ideas for moped safety, “it’s a package of things”. He listed a few examples to help promote improved moped safety: wearing closed-toe shoes, shirts, helmets, reduction in mopeds on the roads, continue to place medallions on the front of mopeds, and to lower the speed limits on mopeds.

When asked at the end of the call on what steps each panelist considered to implement for moped reform, the group offered the following suggestions:

• Raise the age to 25 years; moped riders must wear closed toe shoes – Warcup

• Gradual phase out of mopeds; ban of mopeds – Sprague

• Raise the age to 25 years; gradual phase out of mopeds - Monje

• Stop double passenger riding; increase the rental cost of mopeds – Davis

• Need to think about the five licenses; formation of a group; adjust branding and communication of island - Risom

• Address the costs of bringing cars to the island; bond issue to buy out the mopeds and replace with electric bikes – Rock

• Ban the mopeds; formation of a group – Hall

• Raise the age to 25 years; contained training areas; videos for training moped renters; conversion of mopeds to e-bikes – Bacon