Dirt bikes causing a dustup in Carrick

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When the weather's warm, Donna M. Williams can hear them roar down her narrow street in Carrick, rolling up on sidewalks and creating an obnoxious ruckus.

At around the same time of year, Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, who represents Ms. Williams' neighborhood, starts getting phone calls from constituents complaining about the dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles that scream through on their way to wooded pockets of her district -- some of them city-owned parks or greenways and some privately owned. Residents complain about the noise, but also about reckless behavior from some motorists who use sidewalks, hazarding pedestrians or children playing outside.

The vehicles have been known to cut through Birmingham Cemetery, once interrupting a funeral.

Ms. Williams circulated a petition urging the councilwoman to hold a public hearing on the matter and collected over 100 signatures. By law, the city clerk was then required to schedule a hearing. Ms. Rudiak, who has received reams of complaints about off-road vehicles, went a step further and held a post-agenda meeting as well, gathering stakeholders and experts on the matter. Ms. Williams was among those who appeared at both the public hearing and the post-agenda.

The problem is more complex than it seems because of the way the state's motor vehicle code is structured, allowing dirt bikes, for example, to roam streets and trails with virtual anonymity because they don't have to be registered. And it's difficult for police to catch those who break the rules.

"It's problematic. ... It not only puts other people in danger, but themselves," Ms. Rudiak said. "I don't even want to imagine what a police chase in a cemetery would be like."

Neither ATVs -- the low-slung, three- and four-wheel vehicles -- nor dirt bikes are permissible on city streets unless they're made "street worthy," and most aren't. But that doesn't stop many users from hitting the roads, a move that could earn them a traffic citation.

But it's difficult for police to pursue offenders, since they can easily slip into wooded areas and since they have a strict no-chase policy, as chasing an off-road vehicle could create more hazards than it's worth. And even if the will was there to catch a noisy dirt biker, the manpower is not.

"To get into a chase with a dirt bike, there's a lot of bad things that could happen," said Cmdr. Scott Schubert, who oversees Zone 6, where many of the complaints originate. "To catch somebody in [the woods] you'd need eight to nine police officers."

The problem -- and the solution -- might lie in the way the vehicles are registered and tagged. ATVs must be registered with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, since that department manages acres of state land where ATV riding is permitted. But Rep. Erin Molchany, D-Mount Washington, said two-wheeled dirt bikes are generally not registered unless they're made road worthy, meaning they can roam the streets with relative anonymity.

She's exploring state legislation that would more clearly define dirt bikes and require them to be registered and to carry license plates, a proposal she outlined at Wednesday's post-agenda meeting.

"Any time you register and license something it does create a layer of accountability," she said in an interview. "It's really about ... giving [police] a little bit of a way to track down the rider so they can hold them accountable for any damage that can be caused."

It's also not clear where in the city it's legal to ride. The city code appears to prohibit it in city parks because vehicles are not allowed to veer off the road within their confines.

And besides being illegal, riding ATVs or dirt bikes on asphalt when their textured wheels are designed for dirt is dangerous, said Al Sain, who spoke at the public hearing on behalf of the Off-Highway Vehicle Association.

Mr. Sain of Fayette County is also part of the Indian Creek Valley ATV Club, which owns several hundred acres and maintains about 34 miles of roads. A handful of the members have Pittsburgh addresses.

Mr. Sain said it might behoove someone to establish an off-road riding area closer to the city, giving riders a legal place to romp.

"The people who are riding illegally but really don't want to would have a place to go," he said.

Correction (Jan. 27, 2014): A public hearing on dirt bikes was scheduled in response to a citizens' petition. An earlier version of this story did not mention the petition.

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published January 26, 2014 11:26 PM

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