A picture of a student sitting in what appeared to be a children’s Power Wheels vehicle being ticketed by three San Luis Obispo Police Department motorcycles and one University Police Department SUV gained viral popularity on Twitter last week and was plastered on the front page of the Mustang Daily with a headline that read “Little wheels cause a big deal.”
So what’s the real story behind this four-wheeled spectacle?
It’s more than just a toy. Rashed Talukder, a computer engineering junior, revamped a Power Wheels car as part of the first stages of his senior project.
Talukder was ticketed the afternoon of May 19 at South Perimeter Street for violation of Vehicle Code 21716: Golf Cart Operation.
The state motor vehicle code states that “No person shall operate a golf cart on any highway except in a speed zone of 25 miles per hour or less.”
University Police Chief Bill Watton said Talukder was ticketed for riding on California Boulevard’s bike lane, causing numerous complaints from drivers who couldn’t see the car, which is low to the ground.
“It would scare the hell out of me to be in that thing in a traffic lane,” Watton said. “There’s no way in the world I’d do that with the drivers and the cell phones and all the things going on.”
The California Department of Motor Vehicles Web site defines a golf cart as a “motor vehicle having not less than three wheels in contact with the ground, having an unladen weight less than 1,300 pounds, which is designed to be and is operated at not more than 15 miles per hour and designed to carry golf equipment and not more than two persons, including the driver.”
Although Talukder’s vehicle wasn’t designed to carry golf equipment, San Luis Obispo Police Department and University Police Department officials say the real issue deals with the student’s safety.
“SLOPD was just doing its job,” Talukder said. “They got a lot of calls so they had to respond.”
Taluker said he had no ill intent for his revamped Power Wheels.
Standing at about three feet above the ground, Talukder modified the plastic vehicle to include a solid frame, headlights and taillights, a horn, iPod connection and speakers, 500-watt motor, rubber wheels and an ignition.
In addition to creating an autonomous vehicle for his senior project — which will implement safety sensors for children’s vehicles and potentially full-sized cars — the car is a cheap and green way of getting to school.
“I made this thing for really two reasons. It costs me like 10 cents each day that I drive it,” Talukder said. “And there’s no maintenance. I don’t have to drive my car around, it’s green, I can park it wherever really, it’s really convenient for me, especially with my chronic asthma,” Talukder said.
Another reason Talukder enjoys riding in the car is the response he gets from the campus community.
“It puts smiles on people’s faces. It literally does,” Talukder said. “I go around and I think that’s one of the best things — one of the highs in life where you can do something for someone and not really expect something back in return.”
Before Tuesday’s incident, Talukder was pulled over twice — once by the San Luis Obispo Police Department and once by the California Highway Patrol — and was warned by University Police. He said he was advised to stay on the sidewalk, instead of in the bike lane when driving the vehicle.
“They couldn’t find anything at the time, law and restriction wise, to keep me from driving around, so they said I should stay on the sidewalk and possibly wear a helmet,” he said about the initial pull-over by the San Luis Obispo Police.
The day he was ticketed, Talukder wandered from the sidewalk to the bike lane for the duration of a block because he couldn’t find a disability ramp to get on the curb.
“If you were completely immobilized just with a man-powered wheelchair, you’d have to roll back down the hill or go back down the hill or go a block over and all the way around,” Talukder said. “That’s completely unacceptable in my opinion.”
Political science senior Tai Dang said the sidewalk isn’t the best place for a motor-powered vehicle to be.
“He shouldn’t be on the sidewalk, that’s for pedestrians,” Dang said. “I have the same problem with skateboarders, but at least (Talukder) has brakes.”
Talukder had been using the vehicle — weather permitting — for the past four months on his three-and-a-half mile journey from his home to Cal Poly’s campus. At the advice of University Police Department’s Associate Director Cindy Campbell, Talukder chained the Power Wheels car to a bike rack on campus.
One student, agriculture systems sophomore Stephen Abertolle, said he’d seen Talukder outside Kennedy Library and he was never disrupting the peace.
“He was just cruising,” Abertolle said. “It’s kind of messed up that he got a ticket. He can’t go that fast.”
“I think it’s ridiculous he got a ticket for it,” said electrical engineering senior Myles Still. “I mean, it’s a Power Wheels car.”
Talukder wouldn’t say whether he plans to fight the ticket, but he researched vehicle codes before building the car to try to protect himself from receiving one.
“I tried to be civil about it, to be safe about it,” Talukder said. “When they say that it’s for my own safety, I find that a little hard to swallow … I told them that I ordered a flag for it and I was going to put it on as soon as it came in.”
However the flag is not needed anymore.
Talukder said that the police told him that his car would be impounded if he drives it again. Although he doesn’t intend to ride his Power Wheels again on campus, the image of possible impoundment is comical to Talukder.
“I actually want to see the tow truck driver as he tows it away,” Talukder said, laughing. “I think it’d be the funniest thing in the world, but at the same time not funny because I don’t want it impounded.”
Watton verified the possibility of impoundments.
“If he drives it in traffic, that’s probably exactly the case (that the car will be impounded),” Watton said. “On campus, as long as he stays on the sidewalk, we’re not going to bother him, as long as he’s not blocking the sidewalk or anything like that.”
Lt. Tom DePriest of the San Luis Obispo Police Department also said impoundment was a possibility.
“You can’t modify and drive vehicles on the road that you can’t register,” DePriest said. He said that some motor-powered bicycles and scooters are registerable, but that plastic, off-the-shelf toys aren’t — even with a motor.
Watton said he has never seen Power Wheels being driven on campus before, but has seen other vehicles that are sometimes hard to regulate, like power scooters and motor bicycles.
“There are so many of them out there now,” Watton said. “The laws are real strange in that you have to really look closely to see how it fits and what it fits.”
Updated at 9:03 a.m. on May 26, 2009 with new information from SLOPD.