What is a Scooter?
Commonly seen on the roads in the United States (aside from motorcycles) are scooters, or motor scooters. A scooter is defined as a two-wheeled vehicle with a step-through chassis and footrest platform. They were first developed in the early 1900s and have continued to gain popularity since their debut. The most common brand associated with a scooter is the Vespa, which was developed after World War II in Italy and has since been exported worldwide.
Scooters are powered by a small engine that provides all the propulsion, with displacement ranging from 50cc to 250cc. Scooters typically operate on small 10-inch wheels and uses an electrical charging system, which powers the lights and ignition system and replenishes the battery. In comparison to motorcycles, scooters are more maneuverable due to their low speeds and are easier to ride.
Scooters generally have engines ranging between 50cc and 250cc. However, you can find a scooter with an engine up to 850cc in some western markets. With an engine that large, some may think it should be classified as a motorcycle, but the key difference is that scooters have a ‘step-through’ chassis design.
Scooters have a mixture of automatic and manual transmissions, but the automatic or CVT is the leading favorite with newer models due to their ease of use. They’re fuel-efficient, lightweight, and easy to handle, and unlike mopeds, many scooters have large enough engines that are far more capable of daily commutes.
Despite their physical attributes, there aren’t any differences in its legal classification. Scooters abide by the same rules as motorcycles. One must be at least 14 years of age to ride, but some states require a minimum age of 16. People who ride scooters are required to have a motorcycle endorsement to ride on the streets, motorcycle insurance, and proper riding gear including a helmet and eye protection. They obey motorcycle laws and complete similar, if not the same tests at the Department of Motor Vehicles, so be sure to study the motorcycle instruction manual and laws if your state does not have a specific test on scooter riding and ownership.
What is a Moped?
The moped is oftentimes confused with the scooter, as it is not commonly used (any longer) in the United States. One may think that they are one and the same, or one is slightly larger than the other.
A moped is a bicycle-type vehicle (or two-wheeled vehicle), equipped with pedals and a low-powered engine that provides an economical mode of transportation. Manufacturers in Europe like Puch, Suzuki, Honda, and Minarelli. Puch produced the Puch Maxi, Puch Newport, and MK mopeds, which were popular from the late 1970s to early 1980s. In Austria and the Netherlands, Puch mopeds played a big role in the 1960s popular culture. Puch mopeds in Sweden were, and still are, very popular despite the company ceasing production of mopeds in 1985.
The term moped, or motor-pedal, is derived from the bicycle-like pedals that the rider uses to propel the vehicle to start its helper motor. It typically has an engine smaller than 50cc and/or has a maximum speed of 28mph. With such low-speed ability, they should not be ridden on highways, as they are incapable of keeping up with traffic and will put your safety at risk. Keep them to the city or urban streets where they are meant to go.
A moped’s engine is designed to assist the rider while pedaling and provide only a portion of the power. Mopeds may be equipped with a basic electrical system, but many can still be ridden with the sole use of the pedals. Some states have included in their laws that mopeds are defined by their engine size while other states have defined them by the maximum speed the vehicle can go.
Most states classify a moped with a 50cc or less engine and a maximum speed of 28-30 miles per hour. Kansas is one of the few states that classifies a moped up to a 130cc engine size, therefore, a motor vehicle that doesn’t utilize pedaling power legally qualifies as a moped if it’s small enough or slow enough.
Similarly, to legal classifications, every state has different age requirements for riding, the type of protective gear needed to be worn, and the type of license/registration and/or insurance. Most states require a motor vehicle license endorsement, so one must be at least 15 years of age, if not 16.
Some states will allow a motorcycle endorsement in place of the motor vehicle endorsement, others will require both, while a limited handful doesn’t require either. When it comes to registration, about half the states require a moped to be registered to be legally ridden on the road. In a similar fashion, about half of the states require insurance as well. Personal protective gear is only required in some states too, however, we strongly recommend riding with the proper protection (ATGATT), whether it’s a state requirement or not but we’ll mention it anyway, mopeds shouldn’t be ridden on highways.
What is a Motorcycle?
Modern motorcycles date back 100+ years to the early 1900s. There are many historic brands out there that have a storied history of how they were developed in small barns and garages. A motorcycle is characterized as a two-wheeled vehicle powered by a motor and contains no pedals. They are designed for higher speeds and are equipped with better acceleration and high-speed handling characteristics. Motorcycles are capable of slow urban commutes or highway speeds and beyond. They offer more wind protection than a moped or scooter and generally have some cargo storage available.
Most motorcycles have 250cc or larger engines, deeming them significantly larger than a scooter. Although you can find specific motorbikes with 250cc or smaller engines, such as off-road or Gran Prix motorcycles, the lack of the step-through chassis and the requirement to mount the motorcycle prior to riding characterizes it as a motorcycle vs. a scooter.
Motorcycles have an engine mounted in the middle of the frame with a gas tank above it. Unlike a scooter, the engine is attached to the frame rather than sitting on the rear suspension. The rider sits astride the engine with the gas tank in front of them. The rider cannot step through the chassis but instead requires one to swing a leg over the chassis to mount the motorcycle. In addition, motorcycle wheels are typically larger (over 16″ in diameter) than those on a scooter.
Unlike scooters, which have a “twist and go” automatic (CVT) transmission (where one doesn’t have a clutch to control nor have to change gears), 99% of motorcycles have a manual clutch that requires the rider shift gears manually (usually conducted with the right leg). This manual clutch requires the motorcycle rider to use their right foot to actuate the rear brakes, while scooter riders can use their left hand to apply the rear brake.
California Laws for Mopeds, Scooters, Skateboards and Motorized Bikes
In California, an electric scooter (also called a motorized scooter) is defined as a vehicle that has:
- Two wheels
- A floorboard that can be stood upon while riding
- A motor (electric) that powers the vehicle
- A motorized scooter can have a seat for the operator, but this isn’t a defining feature of a scooter under California law.
You can operate a scooter with any class of driver’s license in California. This means that you don’t need a license specifically for scooters, but you do need to have a regular driver’s license. And while motorized scooters are street-legal, they don't need to be registered with the DMV or carry license plates.
While on the road, motorized scooter riders need to obey the same traffic and safety laws as all other vehicles. However, there are also some scooter-specific restrictions in California:
The driver needs to always wear a U.S. Department of Transportation-compliant helmet.
Scooters can’t be ridden on roads with a speed limit greater than 25 miles per hour, unless there is a bike lane, in which case the scooter can only be ridden within it.
As with other vehicles, motorized scooters should not be operated on sidewalks. There cannot be a passenger on scooters, just the driver. Motorized scooters shouldn’t be driven faster than 15 miles per hour on the road.
These regulations apply to standard motorized scooters.
Mobility scooters, on the other hand, can be driven at up to 30 miles per hour on the road. However, this law only applies to mobility scooters operated by seniors or those with a physical disability.
Motorized bikes (also called electric bicycles) are like mopeds, but California law treats them differently. A motorized bicycle is defined by having pedals and an electric motor with fewer than 750 watts. There are three different classes of electric bikes:
- Class 1 electric bicycle: A bicycle with an electric motor that activates when the rider is pedaling and deactivates once the bike reaches 20 miles per hour.
- Class 2 electric bicycle: A bicycle with an electric motor that can propel the bike without the rider pedaling. The motor cannot be capable of helping when the bicycle reaches the speed of 20 miles per hour.
- Class 3 electric bicycle: A bicycle with a speedometer and a pedal-assist electric motor that stops providing power once the bike reaches 28 miles per hour. You must be at least 16 years old to operate class 3 electric bicycles.
Electric bicycles are street-legal in California, but you don’t need a license or registration to operate one on the road. However, electric bicycle riders must wear a DOT-approved safety helmet if they are under the age of 18 or are operating a class three electric bike. In addition, electric bikes can only be ridden by one person at a time—you can’t carry passengers.
Do You Need Insurance for a One, Two, or Three-Wheeler in California? Maybe!
Riding a moped in California requires insurance coverage, while riding electric scooters, electric skateboards, electric one-wheelers, or electric bicycles does not.
To ride a moped, motorized scooter, or motorcycle in California, you need to carry a minimum amount of liability insurance:
- $15,000 of bodily injury coverage per person
- $30,000 of bodily injury coverage per accident
- $5,000 of property damage coverage per accident
If you’ve leased or financed your moped, your lender may enforce its own set of insurance requirements as part of the loan agreement. These may require you to purchase coverage above and beyond the state minimums.