Legislation vs. Freedom of Choice
by Thomas Day
The AMA (the motorcycle AMA, not the medical AMA) and ABATE have taken on an interesting job. They appear to be motorcycling’s watchdogs, protecting the rest of us from helmet laws and insurance carrier oppression. I sympathize with their task, but sometimes I don’t understand their logic. I think their legislative action goals are supposed to be directed toward building rider education systems that provide information from a variety of, ideally, unbiased sources. With riders educated and riding safely, legislation (like helmet laws) aren’t “necessary” to save us poor dumb motorcyclists from ourselves. At least, that’s the direction their literature has led me to look.
Maybe it’s just the irrational nature of politics, but sometimes I can’t figure out what anyone is doing in the vicinity of our state or national capitols. For example, a few years ago Pat Hahn and the Minnesota DPS ran a mini-experimental test of voluntary helmet-use education; brilliantly code-named the “Helmet Challenge.” With financial assistance from RiderWearhouse and the ever-benevolent Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly, Pat and friends recruited a small group of non-helmet-wearing rookies and experienced riders and provided them with a reasonably nice, full-face helmet for a section of the 2004 riding season.
The stated purpose of this test was to “educate riders about the comfort of motorcycle helmets and, as a result, change riders’ attitudes and increase voluntary helmet use.” The volunteers had to promise to ride with their borrowed helmets on their heads for 21 days in a row during the test. The riders received some professional assistance in fitting the helmets, but were told that their helmets would be donated to the rider training program after the test. So, they had no financial motivation to learn to love their borrowed helmet during the test period.
In the end, two riders said they changed their opinions about helmets and had decided that they’d ride protected all of the time. One rider said he’d wear his helmet “often.” Two said they would only wear their helmet occasionally, when the weather was cold or wet, or on long trips. It seemed to me that the goal of educating riders was met for this collection of five riders. All of the riders had their “attitudes changed” a little, and some changed a lot.
Apparently, a few “rider rights” honchos hated this test and hated the results even more. Pat has taken a good bit of abuse from a few of the organization leaders. And the general riding public hasn’t heard much about the test because the DPS hasn’t done anything with the test results. Herein lies my confusion. If rider education is the goal of the motorcycling groups, it seems to me that this test was a pretty decent beginning. However, the motorcycle group leaders appear to think that, when anyone learns to tolerate a helmet, all of us are heading down some weird “slippery slope” towards legislation. Logically, if we all wore helmets and other protective gear, there wouldn’t be any reason for a helmet law. However, I’m not foolish enough to expect logical action from government or human beings. We’ve met that enemy and he is us. Motorcycle organizations want “education,” but they want that education to be limited to areas that don’t gore their sacred cows. As the United States discovered in the late 1950’s, when you open the educational dam, the water flows everywhere. You can’t limit exploration to tiny areas of human curiosity, no matter how conservative and powerful the powers that be may be. Developing a real education system requires research, experimentation, and painful testing of limits. Sometimes you don’t get what you want, but you’ll probably get what you need. Humans are famous in their dislike for being told what they need when it conflicts with something they want.
As I probably misunderstand the issue, the motorcyclist organizations are really big on “personal choice.” I think they’re arguing that a person’s decision to exit from the gene pool or participate in a risky activity should be a personal choice. They are inconsistent in this argument. In 1886, one of the dumbest editions of the U.S. Supreme Court in a spectacular demonstration of incompetence and corruption, allowed a court reporter to grant corporations 14th Amendment rights of “personhood” (with literally none of the personal responsibilities). Regardless of economics and politics, under current law, if you’re arguing for individual rights, you’re also arguing for corporate rights. One of the rights a particular type of corporation wants is the right to allow or disallow individual insurance coverage based on individual risks. Outside of group medical insurance policies, insurance companies can do this in many areas and are restricted from doing it in a very few. For some reason that is unclear to me, motorcyclists are one of the restricted areas. If a “person” is allowed to accept or avoid risk based on “personal choice,” it seems to me that corporate “persons” should be allowed the same “personal choice” freedom in avoiding the risk of insuring risky behaviors. Currently, we (and all of the risky recreational activities) are getting a free lunch, but you know the rule about free lunches.
In 1998, the federal DOT polled the driving public in general and found overwhelming evidence that most cagers think we ought to be wearing helmets. . . by law. Maybe they’re just pissed because they have to wear seatbelts, or maybe (as other data from that poll found) they think accidents involving unprotected motorcyclists carry excessive and unnecessary costs. As a group, we’re not fondly looked upon by a large percentage of the general public and it’s not due to our “outlaw” self-image. We’re simply too damn expensive for the minimal benefits we provide to society. I think that’s a fix-able problem, but we’re going to have to get to fixing it before we run out of time and public patience. In my experience, “self-regulation” is a fantasy. I can’t find any historic examples of organizations, industries, or segments of society that have successfully self-regulated. Eventually, humans and their organizations are forced to submit to legal limits of behavior from a larger, outside cultural power. I’m less worried about EPA regulation, helmet laws, and local noise ordinances than I am about motorcycles being banned from public roads. I think the folks in motorcycle rights organizations are too tightly focused on the ball, when they ought to be worried about maintaining access to the ball field.