Rights And Not Right
by Thomas Day
A few weeks back I got into an argument with a lawyer about motorcycle rights and civil rights. Later, I’ll get into who was right and who was wrong. Now a few folks joined the discussion to tell me that I was clearly wrong because we were arguing about law. And lawyers, obviously, know more about the law than non-lawyers. In my usual diplomatic fashion, I reminded each of those folks that in every criminal case and every civil suit there is a smart lawyer (the winner) and a dumb one (the loser). At best, 50% of the lawyers “practicing law” should practice more and go to court less. I’m not impressed by legal credentials because in my almost-sixty-years, I’ve heard as many dumb arguments made by lawyers as I have heard uttered by senior corporate executives. The point in question either makes sense or it doesn’t and the credentials/license/pedigree of the person making the premise has nothing to do with the validity of the logic. So there you have it, or there you don’t.
What we were discussing was “motorcyclists’ rights.” I don’t think motorcyclists exist as a special case. The lawyer does. Or at least he desperately wants to believe they should exist because he considers himself to be a motorcyclist. I, on the other hand, ride a motorcycle but I don’t think of myself as a “motorcyclist.” I do not think motorcyclists are a special species, race, or religious group deserving of special rights to public roads, to particular government services or protection, or any form of public subsidy beyond the vehicle’s practical contribution to the flow of traffic. I don’t think motorcyclists are any more deserving of special rights than, say, Ford Escort owners. I own a Ford Escort, but I don’t consider myself an Escort-ist. Like my motorcycles, my Escort station wagon is a vehicle intended to provide individual transportation.
Unlike Ford Escort owners, motorcyclists have gangs of folks traveling to local, state, and federal government officials attempting to gain special rights for our vehicle of choice. I’m unconvinced that these people have my best interests in mind. They lobby against helmet laws, motorcycle noise restrictions, motorcycle pollution legislation, and mandatory motorcycle skill or safety training. When things don’t go their way behind closed doors, they take to the streets and remind the rest of the public of how irritating slow moving, noisy motorcycles can be.
As a clan, we become outraged when “one of us” is killed by an incompetent or homicidal cager, and expect special consideration and prosecution of the idiot driver when pedestrians, bicyclists, and people in wheelchairs see exactly the same lack of justice when they are the victim of “motor vehicle homicide.” In fact, I think the ultimate hit man weapon is probably the SUV. Large motor vehicles are practically Weapons of Mass Destruction. They are accurate or indiscriminant, depending on your murderous purposes, and seem to be a specially protected weapon in criminal court. Kill a man with a knife or a gun; go to jail for a while. Kill him with an SUV; get six months probation and a pocket-change fine. Get drunk and kill someone and you’ll receive sympathy cards from your local legislators.
I think it might be possible to argue that the Minnesota Department of Public Safety and the Department of Transportation may have more employees dedicated to motorcycling interests than there are actual motorcyclists on the road. If you discount the occasional parades of garage jewelry, hopping from bar to bar, jamming up traffic for miles on two lane country roads, and making more noise than a similar number of fighter jets, I doubt that on busy, summer days motorcycling is represented by more than two dozen bikers throughout the Metro area. Average that over a year, factoring in the usual Minnesota riders’ 3 month riding season, and you are looking at an annual average of six riders a day. Maybe you could double or triple that, including the rest of the state, bringing the daily average rider-to-state-motorcycling-employee ratio to a fairly outrageous maximum of somewhere around 3:1. Even if you really got radical and optimistically generous and tripled that number again, you’re still looking at a highly subsidized form of transportation. However, if you included the 200+ part-time state motorcycle safety trainers, that statistic might flip positions and you’d really have to wonder why motorcycles are worth the trouble.
My friend, Pat Hahn, works for MnDPS and he regularly reminds us that there are 180,000 licensed motorcycle riders in the state. Every day on my commute to work I wonder, “where the hell are they today?” I, occasionally do a public access TV show (Motorcycling Minnesota) and for the last two years I’ve staked out a spot on I694 and I35E on Ride to Work Day, waiting for a few rush hours to get as many motorcycles-on-the-road shots as possible to commemorate the day. Both years yielded fewer than a dozen motorcycles and it hasn’t been worth the effort to put the segment into the show.
That is the real problem facing motorcyclists and people who use a motorcycle for transportation. If motorcycles are grossly under-represented on public roads and if they’re not used for daily transportation, what makes the vehicle worth spending all this time, money, and manpower? Bang-for-the-buck-wise, if you took all of the effort put into educating and training motorcycles and redirected it toward driver training and public transportation planning, the general public might be better served. We’re approaching a use-it-or-lose-it junction in road-use planning and it might make more sense for traffic planners to eliminate motorcycles from the roads than to keep spending resources on a marginally-utilized vehicle.
I’m not arguing that motorcycles should be banned from the roads because they’re under-used. I’m arguing that motorcycles are under-used and that we should fix that before we are classified as a recreation-only oddity, like snowmobiles and ATVs. Use it or lose it, put up or shut up and quit making the lame excuse that “it’s the weather” that keeps you off of the bike. Buy a helmet, get some all weather riding gear, and put the bike on the road. If your bike is too theft-inspiring, too loaded with delicate and expensive chrome crap to risk parking in a public space, buy a real motorcycle for day-to-day use and save the garage jewelry for Shriner parades. Ride often enough that your employer and your hometown government feel the need to install dedicated motorcycle parking. Become so visible that drivers start to notice how mobile and traffic-friendly motorcycles can be. Put lots of weekday miles on your bike and be polite about being on the road with other folks. Save the noise and the maneuvering gyrations for the track, where real riders ride fast and loud. Lots of transportation systems have moved from commonly-used, to historical oddities in the last 125 years. If you want to be a “motorcyclist,” you’d better ride the damn thing or you may soon be relegated to “motorcycle only” recreational trails.