Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts is right to crack down on the city's notorious dirt bike riders by using social media and undercover officers to prevent them from disrupting traffic and putting motorists and pedestrians at risk. The unlicensed, unregistered two-wheeled menaces are famous for swarming intersections with dozens of vehicles a time, running red lights with impunity and recklessly zipping in and out of traffic lanes, forcing drivers to maneuver wildly to avoid collisions.
Yet bad as the situation is today, it could get worse if police don't act. Even though the bikes are illegal everywhere in the city, a quirky youth culture has grown up around them that is beginning to attract enthusiasts from around the region. The last thing Baltimore needs is an invasion of scofflaw cyclists from elsewhere to compound the problems created by our homegrown variety. Police are going to have to use every tool at their disposal to nip that possibility in the bud.
To some extent one can understand what leads the mostly teenage boys and young men who make up the overwhelming majority of dirt bike riders to risk life and limb — not to mention the possibility of arrest — by climbing onto a vehicle that is little more than a child's bicycle with a lawn mower engine attached. It's all adrenaline, not to mention dangerous and against the law, which holds a perverse appeal for the adolescent mind.
The allure of the youth counterculture that has grown up around illegal dirt bikes was well documented earlier this year in Maryland Institute College of Art alum Lotfy Nathan's heartbreaking and amusing film, "12 O'Clock Boys," so named for the up-and-down pose riders seek while pulling foolhardy, dangerous wheelies. It's a sympathetic portrayal of what's going on in these young riders' minds as seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy who desperately wants to be part of the scene.
Mr. Nathan's documentary views Baltimore's illegal dirt bike riders more as alienated youth with a fatalistic outlook on both the world around them and their own futures rather than as hardened criminals. And he is persuasive enough as an artist to prompt some viewers to consider whether the city should seek to accommodate their obvious passion for biking in a way that minimizes the nuisance their activities represent and the threat to public safety they pose.
The reality, however, is that there is little chance of that happening — the city has neither large tracts of isolated, vacant land nor the financial resources to develop them as permanent facilities where dirt bikes could operate safely. Even it did, moreover, there would still be the problem of how bikers could get their vehicles to such facilities legally without using the city's roads.
Perhaps just as important, the question remains: Even if dirt bikes somehow could be legalized under some circumstances, would the riders abide by the rules? After all, part of the thrill of riding a dirt bike in the city comes from the knowledge that one is violating the law, and the risk-taking and recklessness that are integral to the sport's popularity among young people aren't likely to prove nearly as compelling if they're suddenly constrained and attenuated under official auspices.
That's why simply taking the bikes off the road may be the only practical course of action to eliminate the threat posed by Baltimore's scofflaw riders. It won't be easy because police have already determined that chasing illegal bikes through the streets only increases the hazard to other motorists and pedestrians. Police need to take a smarter approach toward minimizing the disruption and inconvenience caused by swarms of riders doing wheelies along Pratt Street in rush-hour traffic, and at this point Mr. Batts' plan is as good a place as any to begin.
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