The Motorcycling Community

by Thomas Day

By the time this reaches publication, I will have completed my four-year term on the Minnesota Governor’s Motorcycle Safety Advisory Committee (MMSAC). It was an interesting and educational opportunity: my first in government, my first attempt to labor under Robert’s Rules since high school, and my first experience hanging out with a substantial group of motorcyclists for more than the few minutes it usually takes for me to fill up a gas tank. I’m not much of a social being. I’m well aware of the fact that people are the “most dangerous animal” and the older I get, the less likely I am to put myself in harm’s way. On top of that, I firmly believe in the proverb, “Meetings: all of us are dumber than any of us.”

In the current, segregated and polarized political climate, I didn’t expect to get much done in this committee and I didn’t disappoint myself. I hoped to represent the tiny minority of motorcyclists who don’t wear patches, tattoo motorcycle brand names on their butts, belong to gangs or clubs or special interest groups who regard motorcycles as a practical means of daily transportation, who care about the environment and our communities, and the even smaller group of bikers who try to teach motorcycle safety to new riders. I like math and science and I hoped to introduce a little of each into the suggestions that the committee made to the Governor and the Department of Public Safety. In the end, we managed some small accomplishments, chewed up a lot of time and energy, and I learned some things about motorcyclists as a “community.”

The biggest thing I learned is that we aren’t much of a community. Not many of us have similar opinions about motorcycles, transportation, safety, or government. In this small, assembly of motorcyclists, I found fewer than three or four with whom I agreed; on practically any issue. For a change, I wasn’t the only person in this boat. In conversations after meetings, it was common for each of us to feel that our viewpoints were under-represented in the committee.

Predictably, the ABATE crowd is well represented in this political arena and they are more uniform in their positions than were the rest of the members. There was a small contingent of motorcycle safety instructors (including me) who were mildly in agreement on a few issues. There is an even smaller sample of non-special-interest motorcyclists who were all over the place, depending on the issue at hand. I think everyone was well-intentioned and committed to promoting motorcycling and protecting motorcyclists. Politics is about compromise and motorcyclists may be less able to make compromises than most people. I suspect I am a particularly good example of that disability.

From my perspective, all of the fine ideas for promoting motorcycle safety are hampered by the microscopic contribution motorcycles make to traffic. It’s hard to imagine a “Start Seeing Motorcycles” campaign having much effect when a motorcycle is spotted on our highways barely more often than unicorns or flying pigs. To me, the best thing that can be done to improve on motorcycle safety would be for more motorcycles to be on the road, generating attention, reducing congestion, and providing justification for our vehicle of choice. However, if we fill the roadways with unskilled riders, our crash statistics are going to go through the roof. To me, this makes a strong argument for tougher licensing standards and more training requirements. To the ABATE crowd, my conclusions sound like more “government interference.” I’m probably more fond of the consequences of the Darwin Effect than most, but I’m convinced that most people don’t tolerate high death rates as well as me.

I’ve heard rider complaints about my stance on helmets, motorcycle noise, and motorcyclists’ testosterone-driven, hooligan tendencies. Their argument is that we need to present a “unified front” in promoting motorcycling; that any negative statements about motorcycling from motorcyclists is motorcycling treason. I know where that tactical concept comes from; it has been a successful political strategy for at least one political party, but I don’t think it will work with motorcyclists. There are as many of us who don’t like parades as there are those who only ride in miles-long displays of garage candy. There are motorcyclists who believe that hooligan riding tactics, loud exhausts, and high death rates will damage the future (the near future) of motorcycling. There are riders who wouldn’t ride if motorcycling meant that they had to be courteous, quiet, and prudent. Motorcyclists are a “community” that defies group-ness. Participation in the MMSAC made that clear to me.

I’ve said this before, but people who ask “why can’t we all just get along” and demand that we “present a common front” are really asking everyone to line up behind them. I didn’t run into any of that in the MMSAC group. No one demanded that the rest of us conform to their viewpoint or pretended that dire consequences would follow if we didn’t step into line.

Among this small community of riders, there was an understanding that we are representing an insanely diverse population. What the garage candy crowd wants for motorcycling is almost diametrically opposed to what daily commuters want. The daily commuting crowd ranges from folks who oppose helmets and protective gear to folks who gear up, every morning, like they are heading off to the race track. Commuters ride bikes that vary from race-ready sport bikes to leather-and-chrome cruisers, from the latest and greatest bikes on the market to rat bikes that leak fluids that were never intended for use in internal combustion motors. Sport bikers don’t see safety, licensing, and training issues in the same light as does the cruiser crowd. Touring bikers are a whole ‘nother special motorcycling interest that has as many dissimilarities, among that narrow group, as similarities.

Our opinions on motorcycle noise sway from “loud pipes save lives” to “loud pipes cost rights.” Our perspectives on the “value” of our vehicle spreads between vehicles that are economical, ecologically responsible, practical, and responsible (i.e. “tree-hugging”) to bikes that are loud, emissions-spewing, recreational-use only, and more expensive than space travel (tree-hating?). Where is the middle ground between those opinions?

In the MMSAC, I met MSF instructors who believe that helmets do not contribute anything valuable to motorcycle safety and at least one fair-weather rider who wouldn’t leave home without his lid. I worked with folks who are often derided as “safety pussies” because of their positions on helmets and riding gear and met a few of the folks who do the deriding. I continued and, hopefully, expanded my friendship with the state’s current safety champion, Pat Hahn, and the man who aids and abets him as his boss, Bill Schaffer. My membership in the MMSAC presented opportunities for some spirited and interesting conversations with an ABATE officer who is always a source of insight and counter-opinions, who will remain unnamed to protect his good relationships inside his “crowd.”

In all, I don’t think I could find a wider collection of opinions, intellects, and skills in any portion of humanity than in the “motorcyclist community.” However, I fail to recognize many symptoms of “community” or “group-think” in our group. Presenting a motorcycling unified front seems to me to be a pipedream. I think the best we can hope for is to do as little damage to our image with the majority of road users, and trust that is enough to allow continued use of the highways.

M.M.M.

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