Anyone living in an inner city Philadelphia neighborhood has heard the high pitch whine of dirt bikes and all terrain vehicles speeding up and down the streets in the summer, much to the annoyance and frustration of motorists and residents alike.
The vehicles are dangerous and illegal to operate on the streets, but that doesn’t deter bikers from weaving in and out of traffic, cruising full speed on sidewalks and making dangerous maneuvers. They also know the police are under orders not to pursue them.
This past Sunday though, a special task force of police officers had a surprise for operators of 26 ATVs and 11 dirt bikes in Kensington and North Philadelphia. Using unmarked cars, officers tracked the vehicles to the garages where they were housed and confiscated them. The Police Department is asking for the public’s anonymous assistance in locating where bikes might be housed — and the word is that the special operation is going to continue.
The problem is that once the police do their job, the seized vehicles eventually get turned over to the Philadelphia Parking Authority, who sells the bikes at monthly auctions to the public. If the bikes are registered, the police have to return them to the owner. If they’re stolen, police are often able to return them to their original owners, but unregistered bikes get handed over to PPA — something the police don’t like.
“I can say yes, the raids are going to continue, and this is going to happen in different sections of the city,” said Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross. “I can’t say where, only because that hasn’t been worked out yet but yes, we’re going to be continuing these seizures. What we don’t like is that it’s not within our legal rights to destroy them. To us, it’s the same as if we’re destroying illegal drugs or guns. Now, if we confiscate an unregistered dirt bike, what’s to stop an illegal rider from getting another one at the auction?”
Motorists and residents often complain to the police to do something about the proliferation of the vehicles, which are legal to own — but illegal and unsafe to operate on city streets.
An incident last month illustrates just how serious the problem has become. In the vicinity of Butler Street and Park Avenue, the driver of a dirt bike sped through the intersection without slowing down and smashed into a minivan. The operator of the bike and two small children in the van were seriously injured — the biker suffered injuries to the head, back and neck and shattered glass from the van cut the children. The biker was taken to Temple University Hospital.
The goal of police is to not just take the bikes off the streets, but to have them destroyed. Right now the Philadelphia Parking Authority sells towed and confiscated ATVs and dirt bikes — and listed five of them for sale on July 30. Two more were on its list for August 7 and three more for August 9.
“Confiscated dirt bikes and ATVs aren’t re-sold to their former owners,” said PPA Deputy Director Corinne O’Connor. “This is what happens: when the vehicles are confiscated by police they hold them for a certain number of days — it’s different with each vehicle — until they’re investigated and cleared. Once the police clear them, they hand the file on the vehicle over to us and we sell them to the public at auction. We’re not reselling them back to their former operators. Now if a bike is confiscated and it’s a registered licensed vehicle and the owner can prove that, then they can get it out of impoundment. ATVs are legal to own, just not legal to operate on the street — and that’s where the problem is. That’s why the police are trying to get the legal means to destroy bikes that are confiscated more than once.”
According to statistics from the website ATVSafety.gov, in Pennsylvania, between 1982 and 2010 there were 521 reported deaths related to ATVs. Information supplied by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission shows that the number of four-wheel ATVs in use across the nation has increased from just over 2 million to more than 6.9 million over the past decade. Nationally, from 1982 through 2004, there were almost 6,500 deaths involving ATVs and 115,000 injuries in 2010. About 30 percent of all deaths and injuries from ATV accidents involve children younger than 16.
Statewide, National Transportation Safety Board figures show there have been 493 ATV-related deaths in Pennsylvania between the years 1982 to 2009. Between the years 1982 and 2006, there were 105 ATV-related deaths of children under 16 years old.
“Almost all of them are stolen, and there is no shortage of them,” said Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel. “They are a growing problem for us because it’s just too dangerous to pursue them, according to the Police Pursuit Directive, because they’re just too mobile. The last thing we want is to be chasing some of them and the drivers decide to run up on the sidewalks. But as fast as we get them off the streets, there are more of them. The thieves just head out to the suburbs and steal more. Now the public can help us with this. They have to be stored somewhere, in warehouses or garages. They have launch points, and if people know where those spots are they should call us so we can get them.”