Is it a mobility scooter or a small car, and should it be allowed on Tauranga's footpaths?

A new breed of fully enclosed imported mobility cars has arrived in the city.

Users rave about their newfound independence to travel in comfort even in wet weather, but city officials say the vehicles may be a safety risk and have already stopped them crossing the Matapihi Rail footbridge.

Bayfair retiree Dennis Schroder said he and wife Linda named their two-seater black and white mobility car Orca because "people are always asking us if it's a mobility scooter or a car".

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The pair, who stopped driving due to medical conditions three years ago, used to have two traditional mobility scooters but could not go out in wet weather or talk while on the move. Bus travel made Linda nauseous.

She said buying a $9000 mobility car six weeks ago had been "life-changing".

It had a driver's and back passenger's seat and was fully enclosed with air-conditioning, Italian steering, lockable doors, Bluetooth radio, windscreen wipers, a phone charger, disk brakes and a host of safety lights.

With a 1000W motor, its top speed is about 30 kilometres per hour and can travel about 100 kilometres on a full charge, which takes about four hours to reach once plugged into a standard power outlet.

"These are the future," Linda said.

The couple wanted to drive over the Matapihi Rail Bridge to the city for medical appointments and were frustrated the council had put barriers at the city end that stopped them exiting the bridge.

Mount Maunganui's Bill Biehler found that out the hard way and wound up having to reverse back to Matapihi with help from a parking warden.

He has asked the council to remove the bollards but it has refused.

Biehler said it was not reasonable to stop legal footpath users from crossing the footbridge, especially when there was nothing to stop the much faster road scooters and motorbikes.

He said there were bays on the bridge where scooters could pull in and let people pass.

"It's just common courtesy."

Mount Maunganui retirees Bill Biehler (left) and Dennis Schroder say their mobility cars are the vehicle of the future for New Zealand's ageing population. Photo / George Novak
Mount Maunganui retirees Bill Biehler (left) and Dennis Schroder say their mobility cars are the vehicle of the future for New Zealand's ageing population. Photo / George Novak

Tauranga City Council transport manager Martin Parkes said the footbridge bollards helped screen out vehicles that were "not appropriate", including the oversized mobility scooters.

Smaller mobility scooters could use the bridge, but scooters and motorbikes were not supposed to.

He said the council would be asking the Ministry of Transport to review mobility scooter legislation, which had an "outdated" definition with no road user rules about certification, speed or size of the vehicles.

"It's an emerging safety issue as some of these vehicles are becoming more like small cars but are being driven on footpaths," Parkes said.

Sergeant Wayne Hunter, of Western Bay road police, said they were waiting for a decision from the Government about whether the "oversize scooters can be made illegal".

"Currently they do fit the legislation as mobility scooters although one would question how that could be."

Police were aware the scooters were being used in the Western Bay of Plenty but had received no reports of issues, he said.

Sergeant Wayne Hunter says police have had no reports of issues with the larger mobility devices. Photo / File
Sergeant Wayne Hunter says police have had no reports of issues with the larger mobility devices. Photo / File

Ministry of Transport safety and mobility manager Brent Johnston said the new larger mobility devices were not explicitly regulated as they did not exist in New Zealand when the 2004 law was made.

"We agree that the current legislation on mobility devices has not kept up with the development of low cost and lightweight electric vehicles," Johnston said.

Segways were another grey area.

He said the NZ Transport Agency was in the process of writing to retailers of the larger mobility devices and asking them to demonstrate how the vehicles fit the definition of a mobility scooter.

Namely, they had to be designed and constructed for people who require mobility assistance due to a physical or neurological impairment.

Christchurch mobility car retailer Jeanette Early started My Little Car a year ago and said business had been steadily growing.

She had sold about four vehicles, including Orca, to Tauranga residents so far, and was confident they were legal to be driven on the footpath, or, if necessary, roads and cycle lanes.

Scooter seller Gary Darkes, of Tauranga's Home Health and Mobility, said he thought the mobility cars looked "snazzy" but he would not consider stocking them until the regulations had been clarified.

He was concerned people might buy them only to find the legislation changed, and encouraged the Government to move quickly towards a decision.

"These people need to know sooner rather than later."

What's the width?

Large mobility scooter: about 665cm
Mobility car: 1000cm to 1100cm
Tauranga footpaths: 1500cm.


Mobility device law

Under the Road User Rule 2004 a mobility device

- Must be made (not adapted) for people who require mobility assistance due to a physical or neurological impairment
- Have a maximum motor output of 1500W
- Must not use the road if the footpath is practicable
- Must stay as far left as possible if necessary to use the road
- Must be driven carefully and considerately
- Must not go at a speed that would be a hazard to other road users.