By Thomas Fields-Meyer
August 02, 2004 12:00 PM

In California they’re flying off scooter-shop shelves and flea market tables. “I couldn’t get them in here as fast as I could get them out,” says Eric Rahin, owner of Walnut Creek’s Sonic Scooterz. In Papillion, Neb., Ron’s Rad Toys sold out two shipments in as many weeks. “They see it and they can’t live without it,” says owner Ron Fortenbury.

Last year it was gas-powered scooters. This summer’s fad-on-wheels? Miniature motorcycles known as pocket bikes. Across the country, sidewalks and streets are buzzing with the noisy, gas-fueled two-wheelers that look built for toddlers rather than teens. But older teenagers and adults are driving the market, snapping up low-end Chinese imports for as little as $149, and their fancier European counterparts for as much as $4,000. Sales figures are hard to come by, but one San Francisco importer estimates more than 530,000 have been sold in the U.S. since late 2003. With modifications, pocket bikes and their slightly better outfitted cousins, super minibikes (which have headlights and suspension), can reach speeds up to 40 mph. “It feels like you’re in a convertible when the wind blows through your hair,” says Jamie Torres, 17, of Stamford, Conn. “Everybody just turns their head and says, ‘Wow, look at that bike!’ ”

Not always in a good way. John Tobin, a member of Boston’s city council, says it was sheer luck a few months ago that he avoided colliding with a pocket-biker traveling the wrong way on a one-way street. “It looks like they’re sitting on a Frisbee,” says Tobin. “It’s comical—like something you’d see at Ringling Bros. in the third ring.” Tobin wants the bikes banned from Boston’s streets—as they have been in Providence, R.I., and Worcester, Mass.

Nationwide, law enforcement agencies are scrambling to police the bikes, which—lacking turn signals, mirrors and horns, among other safety equipment—are already technically illegal on public thoroughfares in many jurisdictions. In the Los Angeles area alone, pocket bikes have been involved in at least one death and around a dozen accidents since early this year. “They’re practically invisible,” says Steve Kohler of the California Highway Patrol. “We don’t think these things are appropriate to put in the mix with buses and cement mixers on the street.”

Neither does Elsie Maldonado, 43, of Bridgeport, Conn., who bought one for her son Ivan, 15, on June 5. Four days later making a right turn, he struck a pickup and flew off the bike, Trends fracturing his skull and sending him into a three-day coma. “These bikes are too dangerous,” says Maldonado, whose son is now home recovering. “I think, ‘Why did I buy this?’ ”

In fact, pocket bikes were never intended for street use. Pioneered by an Italian company in the 1980s, they were made for high-performance racing. Then around November U.S. marketers began widely importing the cheap Chinese knockoffs that have fueled the street trend as well as a fledgling racing scene here. “That’s the kind of money [that makes] people say, ‘I’ll give it a try,’ ” says Dave Knop, 27, a Canton, Ohio, graphic designer who owns an Italian model as well as a Chinese import he races for fun.

Yet for many, the thrill is in the danger. Steve Anderson, 20, a warehouse manager who has three of the Chinese imports, likes to speed around his San Clemente, Calif., neighborhood in a T-shirt, shorts—and no helmet. Though he sustained some scrapes after tumbling headfirst over the bars in an accident last winter, and neighbors complain about the noise, he hasn’t slowed down. “My neighbors hate me, but I don’t really care,” he says. “We’re just having fun; we’re not hurting anyone.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer. Diane Herbst in New York City, Kate Klise in Chicago and Ken Lee in Los Angeles