CLEARWATER — New to the scooter business, Doug Vitello and Gary Parr worked hard to meet their customers' needs. But there was one type of customer they couldn't serve.
Again and again, they kept hearing: I got a DUI. I lost my license. Do you have something I can use to get around?
Sunset Scooters did not. So Vitello and Parr started researching and found a type of electric scooter made in China and distributed out of California. They ordered some. They tried them out. They put a sign in their window:
They look like gas-powered mopeds, with bright candy-red and blue bodies, backrests and decorative detailing. They have headlights and window shields and go up to 20 mph.
And, yes, they're legal to ride without a license.
They have pedals, which may or may not be used, and run for up to 25 miles on an electric charge. They fit a state and federal description of "low-speed electric bicycles." Sunset Scooters gives customers copies of the law, recommending they laminate it and keep it with them.
"At first, we had some trouble with law enforcement basically not understanding what these were," Vitello said. "Even some judges were completely mystified. But now they all seem to be on board."
The scooters, distributed by a company called X-Treme Scooters and sold for $1,200 to $2,000, are still new enough to stump the law at times. Sgt. Tom Nestor, a spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, said the agency is trying to determine exactly what these scooters are and how to handle them.
"We'll just say they're under review for now," he said.
Hillsborough County sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said she had not heard of the scooters and would have to ask around.
Other than the sign and sending information to some local lawyers, Vitello and Parr have done little to advertise the scooters. But word has gotten around, mostly by word of mouth, they say. They sell about 10 DUI scooters a month to customers from all over Florida.
The scooter business has been a learning experience for the men, who were successful commercial real estate brokers before the market dried up. Vitello has always loved motorcycles, and Parr was interested in owning a side business while he continued selling real estate, so they bought the scooter shop about three years ago when gas was nearing $5 a gallon. Business has been up and down, they say.
The DUI scooter idea was born out of a need they saw that they couldn't fulfill.
"We got tired of seeing the back of people's heads as they walked out of the shop," Parr said.
Although one retailer in Miami sells the scooters, and probably countless others around the country, Vitello and Parr say the "DUI scooter" label is their creation. Anyone can buy the scooters, but the people who seem to want them are those who have drunken driving arrests or convictions and need an easier or less humiliating way to get around.
For some, it's the only way to get around.
Mark Jackson, 49, has had three driving-under-the-influence convictions, his latest in 2001. At his age, his driving days are over. This was fine when his brother lived close to him in Dunedin and was willing to drive him around, including the seven-mile drive to his job at a home improvement company. But then his brother moved to Largo and the free rides became scarce.
In February, Jackson was driving with his brother when they passed Sunset Scooters. He spotted the "DUI SCOOTERS" sign.
"I said, 'Let's pull in there,' " Jackson said. "I didn't have a clue what these things were."
Jackson now rides the scooter to work and to the grocery store. He says it's a quiet and relaxing ride because of the nearly silent electric motor.
Todd Rosenbaum, executive director of the Northwest Florida chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said he understood the idea and thought they sounded economical and environmentally conscious. But the name irked him.
"It's disappointing that they'd market them as 'DUI scooters,' " Rosenbaum said. "Certainly, if people need transportation, electric bikes are a good option. But calling them DUI scooters sends the wrong message to the community. It's telling people the DUI is not a big deal. It is a big deal."
Vitello said they considered calling them something else, or simply calling them "electric bicycles." But they felt that didn't quite get the message across to the people who need them the most. Someone who gets a DUI is going to notice something called a DUI scooter.
They tell customers about the scooter and what the rules are. You can't take the pedals off, you can't modify it to make it go faster than 20 mph and you can't ride on the sidewalk. Scooter drivers must essentially follow the same rules as bicycles.
And they remind customers of another important rule.
Drunken bicycling is also illegal.
Emily Nipps can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8452.