Freedom Riders

How motorcyclists won the right to feel the wind in their hair--and why drivers still have to buckle up.

On a Monday afternoon in June 1999, Richard Quigley was riding his Harley near Capitola, California, when a local police officer pulled him over for violating the state's helmet law. There ensued a half-hour debate with the officer and his supervisor about whether Quigley's headgear—a trucker's cap emblazoned with "United States Freedom Fighter" into which he had inserted a rigid plastic disc—qualified as a "safety helmet." Quigley, a 61-year-old with a ponytail and a ZZ Top–style beard who directs Bikers of Lesser Tolerance of California and once ran for Congress on the Libertarian ticket, later called the encounter "interesting, informative and fun!"

Richard Quigley's idea of fun, whether riding a motorcycle without a helmet or arguing with the police about it, may not be the same as yours or mine. But his enthusiasm for fighting California's helmet law, a battle in which he has been engaged for seven years "on the streets and in the courts," helps explain a public policy puzzle: While almost every state requires adults to wear seat belts, most do not require them to wear motorcycle helmets, even though riding a motorcycle is much more dangerous than driving a car. The story behind this anomaly is both inspiring and discouraging--inspiring because it shows that a highly motivated minority can make a successful stand for freedom, discouraging because it shows that politics is more important than principle in determining why certain laws aimed at protecting people from their own risky behavior become widely accepted while others remain controversial.

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. Call it the Quigley Factor.

"Motorcyclists Believe in Freedom"

"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."

During the last few decades motorcycle activists have been remarkably successful in bringing that message to state legislators and members of Congress. In 1976, responding mainly to state resentment of federal mandates, Congress repealed legislation enacted in 1967 that had made federal highway funds contingent on adoption of helmet laws. At that point every state but California had passed a helmet law (although the Illinois law had been overturned by the state Supreme Court). Freed of the federal requirement, 27 states repealed their helmet laws or limited their coverage to minors (usually meaning riders under 18) during the next few years. Some of those states reinstated helmet requirements for adults in the 1980s and early '90s, including a few that acted after Congress again started tying highway funds to helmet laws in 1991. In 1995, largely in response to lobbying by the Motorcycle Riders Foundation, Congress again eliminated the helmet law mandate, and since then half a dozen states have repealed helmet requirements for adults (one of which, Louisiana, restored universal coverage last year).

As of July 2005, 30 states still allowed adult motorcyclists the freedom to decide for themselves what, if anything, to wear on their heads. But the insurance industry, safety groups, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) continue to push universal helmet laws, which are periodically introduced by legislators even in states, such as Illinois and Minnesota, that have long allowed adults to ride without a helmet. Meanwhile, helmet law opponents are lobbying for repeal in California, West Virginia, and elsewhere.

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.

The main argument they've had to counter also plays a conspicuous role in debates over government efforts to discourage risky habits such as smoking, drinking, and overeating. As a 1991 report from the General Accounting Office put it, "society bears the cost, through tax-supported programs as well as insurance premiums, for the additional deaths and serious injuries resulting when motorcycle riders do not use helmets." The courts have almost uniformly approved this alarmingly open-ended rationale for regulation as part of the police power.

Having failed in the courts, helmet law opponents have fended off the "social cost" argument in state legislatures partly by noting that taxpayer expenses associated with injuries that might have been prevented by motorcycle helmets do not amount to much. Although riding a motorcycle is much riskier than driving a car, helmets are considerably less effective at preventing injuries than seat belts are. As NHTSA noted in a 1996 report to Congress, "Helmets cannot protect the rider from most types of injuries." Based on accident data from seven states, NHTSA estimated that motorists involved in crashes who wore seat belts were 20 percent less likely to be injured and 60 percent less likely to be killed than motorists who didn't. The figures for motorcyclists who wore helmets were 9 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

The lower rates are applied to a much smaller population, yielding estimates of lives saved, injuries prevented, and costs avoided that are far less impressive than the ones for seat belts, especially at the state level. NHTSA's numbers indicate that a universal helmet law would prevent about a dozen fatalities a year in Minnesota, for example. As Robert Illingworth of the Minnesota Motorcycle Riders Association bluntly put it in a 1992 interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "We're talking about an insignificant amount of money and an insignificant amount of carnage."

"A Case of Not-So-Subtle Political Intimidation"

Even these modest projections are open to question. While NHTSA makes much of increased fatalities after states stop forcing adults to wear helmets, some of the additional deaths may be due to increased riding. Helmet law opponents argue that lifting the requirement makes riding more convenient, comfortable, and enjoyable, which encourages current riders to use their bikes more and spurs new registrations, many by motorcyclists who may be more prone to accidents because they are inexperienced or have not ridden in years.

A NHTSA study released in August illustrates the uncertainty about the impact of helmet laws. NHTSA found that motorcycle helmet use in Florida fell by about 50 percent after the state legislature repealed the requirement for riders 21 and older. Fatalities per 10,000 registered motorcycles in 2001 and 2002, the two years after the new law took effect, were 21 percent higher than in 1998 and 1999, the two years before the change.

Most of the additional deaths after 2000 cannot be attributed to the legal change, since the national motorcycle fatality rate rose by 13 percent during the same period, possibly due to an increase in riders with little experience and in older motorcyclists with slower response times. And while NHTSA took into account the 33 percent increase in registrations that Florida saw after the helmet law was changed, it does not have reliable state-level data for miles ridden, so it could not determine whether people who already had motorcycles started using them more. The bottom line is that decreased helmet use may well have contributed to the rise in fatalities, but it's not clear to what extent. The effect certainly was not as dramatic as implied by press reports, which focused on raw numbers instead of rates, downplayed the national trend, and gave short shrift to other possible contributing factors.

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