The tragic death of an 8-year-old boy riding his miniature motorcycle on a South San Jose street has renewed discussion about whether the vehicles should be readily available to children.
The "pocket bikes," which are marketed to youth but reach grown-up speeds, were banned in 2005 from California's sidewalks, streets and trails, limiting their use to private racetracks, backyards and the like. Serious riders spend thousands on gas-powered European-style models built for the track.
But the law wasn't meant for those enthusiasts. It was aimed at a flood of cheaper incarnations, which can be purchased for little more than a couple hundred dollars from local toy retailers and are often ridden, illegally, on the
That was what Matthew Dinh was riding -- a Pocket Rocket made by scooter manufacturer Razor -- when he was getting onto Farm Drive from Dakan Court and was hit by a pickup truck Friday about 7:30 p.m. He was rushed to a local hospital and pronounced dead that night.
The driver of the Chevrolet Silverado that hit Matthew stopped and cooperated with police, and the case is still under investigation. But it doesn't appear the driver was to blame.
The mini-bike is about 20 inches tall, putting it and its rider out of view for most cars, especially one with the high clearance of a truck.
Instead of blaming the bike, police have focused attention on a confluence of unsafe conditions for Matthew, which
"He entered a roadway with no helmet, no light, during darkness," said San Jose police Sgt. Jason Dwyer, adding that as a rule young children should stay out of the street.
Still, the fact that an 8-year-old was able to have a vehicle advertised to quickly reach speeds up to 15 mph without supervision was jarring to many parents.
"Children don't have the neurological brain patterns to make cause-and-effect decisions," said Pat Belvel, a San Jose-based educational consultant who specializes in parent and teacher instruction. "I don't think they're equipped to drive that fast."
The model Matthew was riding is advertised for children 13 years and older. But such an advisory is challenging to enforce, akin to how underage children can still be admitted to an R-rated movie with a parent. On a dated Amazon.com page for the Pocket Rocket, a parent admitted in one of the product reviews to buying it for a 9-year-old, while another suggested that it was safe for a 5-year-old.
The 2005 law mandated that the motorized bikes be affixed with warning labels explaining safety issues and legalities about where they can be ridden. For the most part, the law has been effective, said Officer DJ Sarabia of the California Highway Patrol, one of the champions of the law.
"It used to be the big thing back then," Sarabia said. "Very rarely do we see them anymore."
Some retailers have gone a step further: At a San Jose Toys "R" Us, a Razor motorbike was also accompanied by a prominent display asking prospective buyers whether they were aware of age recommendations and the maximum speeds it could reach.
Ultimately, it comes down to parents recognizing that young children lack the cognitive abilities to maneuver sidewalks and roadways at speeds that greatly reduce their time to avoid danger, Belvel said.
She added that those capabilities become more fully developed by age 12, which corresponds to the suggested age prescribed by the manufacturers of the lower-end pocket bikes. Before that, children should be closely watched while using any vehicle, motorized or not.
"I didn't let my daughter ride her bike to school until she was 10, and by that point she had been practicing with me," Belvel said.
Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.