The Barbie scooter is famous!
Eye-catching scooters are popping up on Nashville streets, but riders say they may as well be invisible
By Tracy Moore
published: September 11, 2008
You would think someone riding a praying mantis-like vehicle the color of a strawberry milk shake—in glaring daylight, no less—could make it through workday traffic without cheating death. Not in Nashville, where rising gas prices and the attendant popularity of pump-friendly scooters are creating all new hybrids of traffic hazards and road rage.
Last July, Jan Morrison was driving home from her job at a PR firm in Green Hills. It was 5:50 p.m. on a bright, hot summer day when she reached her East Nashville neighborhood. Cruising down Meridian Street on her blazing pink Buddy scooter at about 30 mph, she approached an intersection. She'd taken this particular route at this particular time often. The cross streets had stop signs, and having right of way made her feel safer.
When she saw a dark-green sedan approaching from the right, it appeared to be slowing down. But as she neared the intersection with every intention of sailing legally through it, she realized the car wasn't stopping. It was rolling right on through.
"I knew I had only two options," says the 27-year-old by phone. "One was to not slam on my brakes, and run directly into the driver's side door. The other was to slam on my brakes and see where it got me."
Scooters use hand brakes to slow down, and after riding for two years, Morrison knew grabbing them too hard could result in the front wheel locking up or the bike flipping. So she braced herself and squeezed. The scooter buckled, hurling her onto her left side. She skidded along the pavement with only a white long-sleeved Oxford and jeans between her and the steaming asphalt. She thudded to a stop, her head stopping directly at the nose of the other car, just as the sedan screeched to a halt.
The story didn't make headlines. If the car had gone two feet farther, it would have. But when a van on Main Street failed to yield a few weeks ago, smashing into musician Will Hoge on his scooter and landing him in critical condition at Vanderbilt, news stations perked up. Overnight, Hoge became something of a local poster boy for scooter awareness.
Interviewed at the scene by Channel 5, Sgt. Bob Sheffield summed up the dilemma scooter and motorcycle riders face every time they buzz into traffic. "I guess the burden of safety is on the motorcycle rider [or] scooter rider," he said. "They are in, I mean, on a much smaller vehicle and, you know, a lot harder for folks in passenger vehicles to observe them."
The comment drew ire on message boards and blogs around town immediately. Local blogger The Musician and the Geek fumed at what she described as a "shining example of tactlessness."
"Too bad Will's thoughtless actions as the 'smaller vehicle' nearly cost him his life!" a post from Aug. 21 read. "Since the 'burden of safety is on the...scooter rider,' I guess it's his own fault that he hit the side of a van!"
But Metro Police Dept. spokesperson Kris Mumford insists Sheffield's message was purely educational. "He simply wanted to say it is important for people on scooters and motorcycles to be aware that they aren't as visible," Mumford says. "It was not his intention at all in any way to blame Mr. Hoge."
That didn't appease scooter riders around town, whose numbers are soaring in step with a national trend toward ditching the gas guzzler for the fuel sipper. They say the subtext is nothing new. They're used to getting cut off, honked at, or worse—ignored.
The risk hasn't stopped Nashvillians from buying scooters in large numbers. Dealers like East Side Scooters on Gallatin Road said they've sold more scooters this month than all of last year. "The demand this year has been insane," says co-owner Josephine Duer. She explains that Nashville's terrain allows scooters, meant on average for maximum speeds of 55 mph, plenty of surface streets to avoid the interstates. "Nashville is laid out in such a way that you don't have to hit major streets to get across town," she says.
And they're not just selling to trendy 20-somethings or kids. "When we first opened, I pictured having a niche group like that, but it's everybody buying them," Duer says. "We've had doctors, lawyers, musicians, men, women, everybody. I've had a couple guys come in who wanted to buy motorcycles and their wives were like, 'No way.' So they came in to get a scooter."
As it turns out, though, scooters are just as susceptible to sideswiping as cycles, which raises the question: Why do many drivers fail to register a brightly colored anomaly inserted into their environment? A term called "change blindness" partially explains it.
"People have difficulty detecting visual changes in their environment—salient changes you think people would find easily noticeable," says Vanderbilt psychologist Dan Levine, whose research focuses on change blindness in natural environments. "There's an enormous amount of info out there, and to think clearly we have to select little bits of it. What we select is generally a reflection of what's important. But not always."
Change blindness afflicts Nashville in other ways. Thanks to a dearth of bike lanes, which have been slow to develop here compared to cities such as Portland or Minneapolis, Nashville drivers are peripherally lazy when it comes to alternate forms of transportation. If we were used to sharing the road with cyclists, we might notice scooters more often. It's a new concept for a city whose rise coincided with the rise of the automobile.
Though they find Nashville a fun city to zip around in, scooter owners Adam Tanaka and Funky McDonnell say they've still experienced their fair share of hostility. They've started an online community called Scoot Nashville for riders to become acquainted and talk shop. Finding safety in numbers, they hold mass rides every third Sunday at 2 p.m.
"People treat it like it isn't a real motorized vehicle," Tanaka says. "Like, 'Get your two-wheel toy off the road.' You go to turn and you have your blinker on and they just get right on your ass."
Or they cut you off, as happened to McDonnell recently. Driving in the far right lane on West End, a woman on the far left crossed three lanes of traffic to pull directly in front of him. Then she stopped hard to make a quick right into a business. Like Morrison, McDonnell had to decide whether to become road kill or take a dive.
"I had the option of taking the scooter down to the ground, or slamming into the back of her and probably going through her windshield—and it would have been my fault," McDonnell recalls. "So I took the scooter down. She had no idea that it even happened."
None of that incensed him nearly as much as what happened next.
"This guy walking down the sidewalk saw what happened," McDonnell says. "He made sure I was OK, then walked over to the woman and told her what she did. She looked up, looked over at me, and then went right back to what she was doing. Didn't even find out if I was OK. I got to work with blood all down my legs."
In spite of drivers' tendency to ignore the latest mode of transport at their peril, the police department says scooter accidents haven't increased. Though given the increase in their presence, they wouldn't be surprised if they did.
Hoge's condition was recently downgraded from critical to stable. In a post on his MySpace page, he describes his injuries with a chilling directness: "My left eye was almost ripped out. My entire forehead looked like chopped ground beef."
Public awareness campaigns are tentatively in the works from some East Nashville residents, but other scooter riders have more ad-savvy ideas. "Maybe bikers and cyclists should wear shirts with half-naked women on them," said a user named Brandon posting on an East Nashville message board. "That should get attention, since it appears that it gets America's attention already—according to every commercial, advertisement, etc."
But in lieu of racy attire, scooter drivers are left frequenting the pockets of town with sympathetic drivers around Five Points, 12 South or Hillsboro Village, or fingering their worry beads. Most have their own mantras, and they all more or less amount to one thing: Drive like you're invisible.
"You get this scooter sense after a while," says McDonnell. "Even if someone doesn't have their blinker on, you just get to where you know when someone's going to pull out in front of you."
Still, scooter drivers like Morrison—who limped away from her accident with bruises, road rash and skin loss (particularly on her feet from not wearing socks) but no broken bones and no serious injuries—find that even after the road rash has healed, the road rage lingers like a stubbornly infected cut.
"I've just turned into the meanest driver you've ever seen," she says with a laugh. "This morning I was driving in to work and this truck pulled up. I don't even think he was going to cut me off, but he just looked like he was getting a little too close. I just laid down my horn and flipped him off. I just can't take it anymore."