Mini-moto menace

Observations on wheels

They're small, noisy and, well, kind of silly, but mini-motorbikes, or Monkey Bikes, as they're popularly known, are a rapidly growing trend among British youth. Barely two feet high and costing just £100, the bikes are legal only on private land, but a dearth of legal tracks and the boom in sales have sent hunched-up teenagers whizzing across public parks. Riders on pavements are becoming a common, if comical, sight.

But one man who isn't amused is the Home Secretary, John Reid, who says that their illegal use is causing misery. His department's Respect Task Force is spending £200,000 to help police crack down on the phenomenon in 28 "hot-spot" areas of England and Wales. Standing in a vehicle-breaker's yard in Manchester, Reid announced his plans to crush, in public, the bikes of those who break the law. Offenders will also have points added to their driving licence, even if they are too young to have one yet.

He may have a point. Marketed as toys, mini-motos have been involved in at least four deaths in the past two years. The Motor Cycle Industry Association estimates that roughly 100,000 of the bikes were sold in 2005. The boom in sales has been caused by cheap imports from China, which sell for a fraction of the cost of European-made vehicles and often lack important safety features. Their use on public land is particularly widespread in the north-west of England, where Manchester City Council has made tackling the problem one of its five key aims for fighting antisocial behaviour.

But are they quite the menace they have been made out to be? While the Home Office says the bikes can reach speeds of up to 60mph, Dave Luscombe of the Auto-Cycle Union (ACU), which governs the sport of motorbike racing, disagrees: "The Chinese-imported bikes, which are the ones kids are riding, do 20mph max - they're powered by a garden strimmer engine. I can go faster than that on my push-bike."

The ACU says it is cheaper and more effective to ensure there are more places where the bikes can be ridden legally, as there are only a dozen or so commercial tracks in the UK. Luscombe believes it would also encourage young enthusiasts to take up the sport of motorbike racing and points out that Valentino Rossi, the world champion racer, started out by racing mini-motos. "If we can convert only 10 per cent of illicit riders to legitimate sporting use, we will treble the numbers of sporting youth motorcyclists in the UK," he says.

However, the zero-tolerance approach certainly fits well with the government's war on "yob culture". But will this attitude extend beyond the Monkey Bike? With 3,201 deaths on British roads last year, perhaps "Crusher" Reid will set his sights on the cars of people who speed or drink-drive.