“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” – Margaret Mead.
As we all know, governments do one thing really well — telling us how to run our lives. Thus, most places in the world (for instance every US state except New Hampshire) makes it mandatory that you wear seatbelts while driving. Surprisingly though, most US states do not require motorcycle riders to wear helmets. How did this strange situation come about?
The answer is fairly simple; motorcyclists, against all odds, fought for their freedom and won it. That stirring story is recounted with delicious pleasure by Jacob Sullum in this old Reason article.
In 2003 there were 5.4 million registered motorcycles in the U.S., compared to about 136 million registered cars. Despite their relatively small numbers, motorcyclists have been far more effective than drivers at resisting traffic safety paternalism. After some initial grumbling, most motorists got used to buckling up and are now unlikely to put up much resistance as states move toward primary enforcement, allowing police to pull people over for not wearing seat belts (as opposed to issuing citations after stopping them for other reasons). By contrast, going back to the 1971 founding of the American Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments (ABATE) by the staff of Easyriders magazine, motorcyclists have been willing to invest the time, effort, and money required to fight helmet laws.
And this happened because motorcyclists, with a fierce passion, think that people ought to be able to lead their lives the way they deem fit. They believe they should have the freedom to make their own choices, including ones that are risky or potentially lethal. And they are prepared to protect this freedom by every means at their disposal.
“Motorcyclists believe in freedom, and we attack anything that is attacking our freedom,” explains Robert Fletcher, coordinator of the Texas ABATE Confederation. “Helmet laws go against the grain of everything this country stands for,” says New York Myke, ABATE of California’s state director and owner of San Diego Harley Davidson. Just as abortion rights groups insist they do not favor abortion, motorcyclist groups are at pains to make it clear they do not oppose helmets. Jeff Hennie, vice president for government relations at the D.C.-based Motorcycle Riders Foundation, says, “What we’re advocating is freedom of choice….It should be the decision of the rider whether to put on extra safety equipment.” He describes the attitude of helmet law opponents this way: “Let me decide what is right for me, instead of the government jamming regulations down my throat.”
The view of helmets as confining and stifling meshes with the sentiment that forcing people to wear them ruins what is for many riders a visceral experience of freedom. “We’re passionate about our motorcycles,” says ABATE of California’s Myke. “This is something that’s more of a way of life than a hobby or a sport. It really goes to the core of our being….Riding a motorcycle is my celebration of freedom.” Few motorists feel the same way about driving, which for most of us is a workaday means of getting around, not an important part of our identities.
Sullum goes into details about how the motorcyclists argued, demonstrated and lobbied. There were defeats and there were victories. But they never gave up.
What makes their achievement all the more astounding is that they never had either the numbers or the support of the public.
To block or repeal helmet laws, activists must convince legislators to defy public opinion. While a 1978 Louis Harris poll found that 57 percent of Americans thought motorcyclists should be free to ride without helmets, a 2001 survey by the same organization found that 81 percent thought helmets should be required. Add to that the fact that the fatality rate per mile traveled is more than 25 times as high for motorcycles as it is for cars, and the success of helmet law opponents is even more impressive.
But my favourite part of Sullum’s article is the last paragraph, where he is at his eloquent best.
In the final analysis, not enough people took seat belt laws personally. For the most part, whatever objections they harbored were overcome by force of law and force of habit. By contrast, substantial numbers of motorcyclists have complained loudly, conspicuously, and persistently about helmet laws for more than three decades. “Apparently,” says the National Safety Council’s Ulczycki, “legislators are easily convinced that the perceived rights of motorcyclists to injure themselves are more important than the public good.” Aside from the tendentious definition of “the public good,” this gloss is misleading on two counts: Resistance to helmet laws hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t necessarily involved convincing legislators of anything but the motorcyclists’ determination. Politicians didn’t have to understand their passion to respect it. And therein lies a lesson for the world’s busybodies and petty tyrants.
Sullum is right. If a small group of people care strongly enough for liberty, there are ways to make legislators fall in line. For that you do not have to make them understand you, merely make them understand your resoluteness . How I wish car-owners shared some of this passion that motorcyclists have!
However my short review does no justice to Sullum’s long, well-researched and wonderfully narrated article. Read the whole thing.
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