OCEAN CITY - A convicted drunken driver says the city is harassing her over the electric bicycle she rides around town.
Denise Baj, 51, said she rode her bike for more than a year without trouble. But when she moved from the city's sparsely populated south end to the north end - a few blocks from the Ninth Street Police Station - she was stopped and ticketed twice last year for driving an unregistered motor vehicle.
"I'm a trendsetter," said Baj, a city resident. "People ride these things all over North Jersey."
The bike - called an XB 700 LI - looks more like a scooter than a traditional mountain bicycle or 10-speed. It has pedals but also uses a lithium battery to provide supplemental power to its rear wheel. The bike goes less than 20 mph.
Under New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission rules, the kind of bike Baj has apparently does not meet the threshold of having an engine greater than a 1.5-horsepower or attaining a speed in excess of 25 mph, which would require it to be registered as a moped or motorcycle in New Jersey, according to a MVC spokesman.
But Ocean City court officials insist her electric bike should be treated as a moped.
Baj said she satisfied all of her court conditions after she was convicted of drunken driving in Somers Point. But she could not afford the related insurance surcharges, so she looked into alternate forms of transportation.
Baj sustained a back injury in a 1994 car accident. Despite several surgeries, she has limited mobility. Riding a normal bicycle would be very difficult, she said.
So in 2009, she bought an electric bicycle for $1,600. Baj said she researched the legality of electric bikes in New Jersey before making the big purchase. Electric bikes of different makes are sold at several bike shops in Cape May County.
To her delight, the bike worked exactly as advertised, holding a charge for an entire week and allowing her to get around the island and even bring home a bag of groceries.
"I take the back alleys. I don't ride it in the winter," she said. "Usually I take the fare-free transportation shuttle. But this was something I use on the weekend if I needed a prescription."
Baj decided to fight the tickets in Ocean City Municipal Court. In March, Municipal Court Judge Richard A. Russell dismissed the charges over a procedural issue.
But the court case did not resolve the central issue about whether electric bikes such as Baj's should be treated like any other bicycle in Ocean City and the rest of New Jersey. Baj made a motion to have the court recognize the definition of electric bicycles as a type of bicycle under the federal Consumer Product Safety Act.
But to the court's mind, Baj's bike is a moped.
"It had to be registered, insured with a valid driver's license to operate," Municipal Prosecutor Don Charles said. "The judge determined federal consumer product safety law did not supersede New Jersey's motor vehicle laws."
Baj said the court warned her that if she tried to ride her bike again, she would risk having police impound it. And she said she can't afford to pay impound fees.
"This bike is economical, very green. Everyone wants you to go green," she said. "Well, I went green and I'm being persecuted for it."
Charles said the case was the first of its kind in Ocean City over electric bicycles. He said Baj got a fair hearing over the issue.
"Her request has been given a great deal of consideration from the Police Department and the court," he said.
Alternate forms of transportation have been controversial in Ocean City in recent years. The city's Police Department in 2009 urged City Council to outlaw the rentals of golf carts and other low-speed vehicles. But council endorsed the idea and declined to ban them from the island as police had proposed.
"It's a formula for tragedy," police Capt. Steven Ang said.
The only local rules restricting electric bikes are on the Boardwalk, where motorized vehicles of any kind are prohibited, Ang said.
Ang said he expects state regulations to catch up with manufacturing trends if electric bicycles prove popular in southern New Jersey. The same thing happened in the 1970s with the popularity of mopeds, he said.
"When mopeds first came out, everyone rode them and there were no regulations," he said. "Then they decided they needed the regulations to catch up."
Ang said if Baj's electric bicycle indeed does not meet the criteria under the state Motor Vehicle Commission rules for mopeds or motorcycles, police have no cause to force her to have a driver's license, registration or insurance.
"If this is street-legal, we should not be bothering her," he said.
Dealers say electric bikes are gaining in popularity, especially among older riders who have knee problems or other physical limitations.
"The lazy people are the ones in their cars. The people who ride electric bikes are trying to get healthy," said Bert Cebular, founder of NYC Wheels in New York.
His store is seeing a 20 percent annual growth in sales of electric bikes, he said.
Laws over electric bikes vary by state.
Cebular said the industry is dealing with the legal line that differentiates electric bicycles and mopeds or motorcycles, especially in cases where people lose their driver's licenses.
"Sometimes, they're looking to ride a motorcycle without a license," he said. "They want something as close to a car without a license."
On the streets of New York, the biggest threat to the new industry is from couriers who have embraced electric bikes, which enable them to climb hills faster and flout the law with even greater disregard to traffic rules, he said.
"They used to be slow going up hills. Now every time they hit you they're doing 20 mph," he said.
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