Drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians startled by a dirt bike roaring up alongside or swerving in front of them know all too well how dangerous off-road vehicles can be on city streets, where their presence is as illegal as it is disruptive. The hazards are magnified when swarms of dirt bikes, quads, or ATVs take over busy urban thoroughfares, as occurred Feb. 15 in Philly, with dozens of the vehicles creating havoc by racing and popping wheelies in and around Center City.
In 2018, off-road vehicles were involved in 11 accidents — three of them fatal — on Camden’s streets. So far this year, nine mishaps involving off-road vehicles have been reported there; five victims were critically injured. Law enforcement is cracking down and politicians are vowing to boost fines and raise penalties for impoundment of street-illegal vehicles.
“These are not recreational riders, but reckless joyriders,” says Dan Keashen, a spokesman for the Camden County Police Department. “This is foremost an issue of public safety.”
Philly also treats off-road street riding as a law enforcement issue; last October, police arrested 20 from among the hundreds who thundered around town in memory of a slain rider. This prompted Inquirer columnist Helen Ubiñas to suggest Philly regard the rise of this underground urban riding culture as an opportunity, a chance to channel the free-spirited daredevilry in another direction, and toward safer locations, such as an off-road bike park. Discussions about such a facility seem not to advanced very far, but are well worth having.
As was true of the Center City skateboard park built to provide lovers of the pastime with a less intrusive alternative to the legendary attraction that was the former LOVE Park near City Hall, the notion of an off-road park is a good one. Some of the stunts illegal riders perform are, like skateboarding’s aerial acrobatics, impressive feats of agility and skill that could be incorporated into a regulated recreation program, or even a competitive sport.
Some might argue also a there’s a lesson to be learned here from graffiti, that once ubiquitous scourge of 1970s and ’80s urban life that has reemerged as a scourge but has also been brought indoors in recent decades, living often in galleries or as outdoor murals. But for all the damage graffiti does, it doesn’t impact public safety in the way a dirt bike or ATV or quad erupting out of nowhere and racing in and out of fast-moving Philly traffic can. Many riders are oblivious to the presence, the safety, and indeed, the rights, of other people to use the city’s already overburdened street and highway network.
That street-riding scene in Creed, the 2015 film, set in Philadelphia, that breathed new life into the faded Rocky franchise, added a choreographed jolt of adrenaline to the movie. But those streets were cleared, the conditions controlled, and the actors, paid. A fantasy, in other words.
And for now, riding an off-road vehicle on the streets of Philly or Camden is illegal. And should be treated as such.