State and municipal officials gathered at City Hall in Allentown on Wednesday to laud a new state law that will impose tougher penalties on daredevils who illegally ride dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles on public streets.
The law, introduced by Republican Sen. Pat Browne of Allentown, allows authorities to confiscate vehicles if a rider is convicted. Authorities can then destroy or sell them.
The goal is to deter violators. Dirt bikes and ATVs cost thousands of dollars, and now they could be lost if ridden where they don’t belong.
I wonder, though, whether the law could backfire because it’s not universal. It doesn’t cover every municipality. So it could encourage people to ride elsewhere where penalties aren’t as tough.
The law doesn’t cover boroughs and townships. The first version of it included boroughs, but that was changed during debate in the state House. The final version applies only to cities. It initially was written to cover only third-class cities such as Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, but was amended to include all cities.
So the law couldn’t be used in cases such as the 40 dirt bikes, motorcycles and ATVs that state police said recently drove dangerously on Interstate 78 in Upper Macungie Township.
Police still could issue traffic citations, but the higher fines and the confiscation and destruction penalty wouldn’t apply. The new law, which takes effect in mid-September, imposes fines of $50 to $200 for a first offense and $100 to $300 for subsequent offenses.
But the big penalty is the seizure and destruction.
Statewide, ATVs are illegal to ride on city streets and so are most dirt bikes. Those dirt bikes that are legal, based on their engine size, must be registered and insured.
In Allentown and other cities, packs of dirt bikes and ATVs ride with disregard for traffic laws. They go the wrong way on one-way streets. They ignore stop signs and red lights. They drive on sidewalks. In Philadelphia, they’ve been ridden up the steps of the city’s fabled art museum.
A speeding dirt biker who was showing off and popping wheelies struck and killed a teenager on a skateboard in May in Philadelphia, police said.
Browne introduced his legislation to increase the penalties after state and Lehigh Valley officials created a regional task force in March to address the problem.
Matt Szuchyt, a spokesman for Browne, told me the legislation was amended to exclude boroughs because that was necessary to get enough support in the state House.
Rep. Zach Mako, a Republican from Lehigh Township, offered the amendment.
He told me some lawmakers in western Pennsylvania had concerns because the vehicles are popular in their areas. Some communities have local ordinances that allow ATVs to be used on roads.
“In the rural areas, that’s how people get around,” Mako said.
He said the bill would not have passed the House without the change. He said the change was a compromise that preserved the intent of the legislation, to help cities such as Allentown and Philadelphia where ATVs and dirt bikes cause problems.
I recognize that compromise is needed to pass legislation, and that dirt bikes and ATVs are viewed differently in different parts of the state.
There was another way the Legislature could have handled that, though.
It could have written the law to cover townships and boroughs, and exempted municipalities with local ordinances that allow ATVs to be ridden on roads.
One version of the legislation was written that way. That version was scrapped, though.
Mako told me lawmakers could touch up the bill later if necessary.
He also proposed another change that was made to the bill, allowing confiscation of dirt bikes and ATVs only if the rider is convicted of breaking the law. That’s reasonable. The foundation of the justice system is that people are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and we can never forget that.
Riders often ditch their dirt bikes and ATVs when police pursue them. Those riders may never be found, but police can impound the bikes and destroy or sell them if they are not claimed and are determined to be abandoned under state law.
I hope the law is enforced with zero tolerance by Pennsylvania’s cities. When they demolish dirt bikes and ATVs, they should publicize it to make sure the message gets out.
And if boroughs and townships start experiencing this problem, I hope they lobby lawmakers to broaden the law, allowing exceptions where warranted by local interests.
Morning Call columnist Paul Muschick can be reached at 610-820-6582 or [email protected]