Helmets, laws and outlaws5/14/2014
Motorcycles are built with equal portions of romance and mechanics.
From Robert Persig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” to Patrick Symmes’ “Chasing Che: A Motorcycle Legend,” biker literature has spawned a cult of self-discovery that exceeds all other human-machine relations, save the airplane. In fact motorcycles and airplanes are intermingled in the same mythology. The Hells Angels motorcycle club took its name from a World War II aviation squadron. Motorcycles fly in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, grew up a motorcycle daredevil.
Motorcycle history is part myth. Six different people all in different countries simultaneously invented the first motorbikes. T.E. Lawrence, the first celebrity motorcycling champion, crossed the realms between myth and reality so frequently that he is better remembered in the fiction written about him than the considerable history he created. Here’s how “Lawrence of Arabia” described riding:
“A skittish motorbike with a touch of blood in it is better than all the riding animals on Earth because of its logical extension of our faculties and the hint, the provocation, to excess conferred by its honeyed untiring smoothness.”
Lawrence crashed his honeyed smoothness and died at age 46. In motorcycle mythos, though, death by crashing guarantees entrance to biker Valhalla. John Irving (“Setting Free the Bears”), Alan Bennett (“The History Boys”) and Ted Hughes (“A Motorbike”) all wrote critically acclaimed novels celebrating death by cycle. Dennis Hopper’s 1969 movie “Easy Rider” enshrined such as a pure and holy death.
The element of cool
Celebrity and glamor further romanticized motorcycles in the second half of the 20th century. James Dean, Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, Bob Dylan and Hunter S. Thompson brought a free-spirited, “bad boy” image to the scene, both on and off screen.
“During those early years in New York, I often got on my motorcycle in the middle of the night and went for a ride — any place,” Brando said. “It was wonderful on summer nights to cruise around the city at 1, 2 or 3 a.m. wearing jeans and a T-shirt with a girl on the seat behind me — if I didn’t start out with one, I’d find one.”
Dylan retired for 10 years after crashing his Triumph Tiger 100 in Woodstock, New York. Thompson rode for a year with a then little known tribe known as the Hells Angels, once describing it as, “With the throttle screwed on there is only the barest margin and no room for mistakes. It has to be done right, and that’s when the strange music starts — when you stretch your luck so far that the fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms.
“You can barely see a hundred; the tears blow back so fast that they vaporize before they get to your ears. The only sounds are the wind and the dull roar floating back from the mufflers.”
ìCoolî vs. concussion
With so much romance associated with biking, the idea of wearing a helmet has been a very hard sell. Searching through hundreds of photos of McQueen, Dean, Hopper, Brando, Dylan and Thompson riding bikes, rarely will you see any of them wearing protective head gear, except one of McQueen competing in a cross-country road race in Mexico — while smoking a cigarette. Even Pirsig, a genius philosopher with an I.Q. of more than 170, is photographed without a helmet as often as with one. In his most famous bike-riding shot, he’s without one on a loaded bike with his bareheaded-son riding behind him. As Dan Aykroyd said, you do not need a therapist if you own a motorcycle.
Romance is oblivious to safety issues. That’s why cyclists, snowboarders and skiers are decades behind less romantic adventurers in adopting helmets for safety reasons. The last football player to play without a helmet was Chicago Bears defensive-end Dick Plasman, in the National Football League 1940 championship game. The Bears won 73-0, so it’s questionable if Plasman’s opponents put up much threat to his safety anyway. Hockey players, even goalies, resisted helmets much longer. It took a visible traumatic event to change things: the 1968 death of Minnesota North Star Bill Masterton. Masterton’s head hit the ice, and blood ran freely from his nose and ears. Four doctors worked for 30 hours to try to save him, but he died of “massive brain injury.” Eleven years later, the National Hockey League finally mandated the use of helmets, and even then it grandfathered-in stubborn older players who chose to go without them. Yet, even hockey players were decades ahead of bikers and skiers.
Evil Knievel, arguably the greatest motorcycle daredevil of all time, was among the first celebrity bikers to profess safety over romance.
“Riding a motorcycle on today’s highways, you have to ride in a very defensive manner. You have to be a good rider and must have both hands and both feet on the controls at all times,” he said.
Knievel is usually photographed wearing a helmet. Hollywood hunk Eric Bana tries to remake the image.
“I look my best when I take my helmet off after a long motorcycle ride. I have a glow and a bit of helmet hair,” Bana said.
Comedian Victoria Moran made another point: “Taking (vitamin) B-12 is the price of being a vegan. In the same way, wearing a helmet is the price of getting to ride a motorcycle, and giving up alcohol for nine months is the price of having a baby.”
The cult cable TV show “Sons of Anarchy,” has done more to make helmets cool than perhaps anything before it, particularly the half-helmets worn by series star Charles Hunnam (“Jax”).
Liberty or liability?
Such efforts have inspired legislation making helmets compulsory for some. Iowa is among only three states with no helmet law. Seventeen states demand all riders wear helmets, and 30 others require riders younger than 20, or younger than 17, to wear them. Kentucky, Florida and Michigan also demand catastrophic health insurance for riders older than 21 who choose not to wear helmets. That insurance law is a compromise between libertarians and the public interest.
One main argument for compulsory helmet use is that careless, bareheaded riders often suffer major head traumas and become burdens to others. A head trauma can easily cost millions of dollars in medical expenses.
Iowa, Illinois and New Hampshire (appropriately known as the “Live Free or Die” state) remain the only states without helmet laws.
Whatís with Iowaís recalcitrance?
These are some reasons that people gave for not wearing a helmet:
“They’re uncomfortable to the point of distraction.”
“They make my head sweat.”
“It messes up my hair.”
“I can’t hear when I wear one, and my peripheral vision is impaired, too.”
On the other hand, people who feel strongly that helmets should be required explained these points:
“I think anyone who works in a hospital emergency room, like I do, feels they should be required.”
“You can get a concussion from a falling acorn. Think what a curb does to a brain at 100 mph.”
Tony Bisignano was a powerbroker in the Iowa Senate during the 1990s and is running again for his old seat this year. On this issue, he suspects there’s something about the character of Iowa that resists being told how to dress on a bike.
“More than most states, Iowa’s legislature pits rural and urban mindsets against each other, and most traffic safety legislation brings that out in a major way,” he said. “Kids growing up in a rural setting learn to drive machines at a younger age. They use all kinds of vehicles on a farm. They drive off-road as much as on highways. Sometimes they need to crowd several people into a front seat of a pickup. They do not want to give up any freedoms they perceive as being disrespected by urban interests.”
Bisignano said that, after his son was killed in a traffic accident, then Gov. Tom Vilsack tried to push auto safety legislation called “Nick’s Law.” Even that stalled because of rural resistance, but he says he understands.
“I believe in choice. The debate is over about seat belts — they save lives overall, except there are also some incidents when seat belts cost lives,” he said. “I used to think that mandating seat belts in school busses was something that ought to be done. But there’s a whole list of reasons why not to do that, even, beginning with putting a bus driver in charge of watching for violators instead of watching the road.”
Bisignano says Iowa did briefly have a compulsory helmet law in the 1970s.
“As I understand it, the federal government strong-armed it through with threats of taking away highway money,” he said. “But they lightened up a year later, and the law was repealed in Iowa. That shows how strongly Iowans feel about it.
“It’s always easier to pass a bill than to repeal one. Once a bill is in place, there are capital interests committed to keeping it.”
Medico executive Tim Hall, who spent nearly 12 years in the Nebraska legislature, agrees with Bisignano about the difficulty of repeals.
“Every single year we had legislation come up to repeal our motorcycle helmet law. It made it to the floor a few times but never passed,” he recalled.
Hall and Bisignano both said that lobby groups on both sides of the helmet issue were intense.
“On the pro side (of repeal), there was ABATE (a motorcycle rights organization). On the con side, there were insurance companies, medical companies, doctors, parents groups and the tourism industry. Some of the latter think that Nebraska loses money from all the bikers who bypass the state on their way to Sturgis (South Dakota — home to the largest biker rally in America),” Hall said.
Bisignano added that passing a helmet law inspires so much resistance that few veteran legislators are interested.
“If you see such a bill, it’s almost always proposed by a first-term legislator who doesn’t know what he’s getting into,” Bisignano said. “Bottom line, education is more important than legislation.”
Do helmet laws make riders safer or just easier to insure?
Considerable research has been done on the safety effects of helmets — more regarding skiers and snowboarders than bikers, though, because the former are usually taken to just a few hospitals near mountain resorts and because helmetless skiing has produced more celebrity deaths than biking has. Sonny Bono, Michael Kennedy and Natasha Richardson all died after crashing while skiing without a helmet. Formula One champion, Michael Schumacher, is still in a long coma after crashing on skis with a helmet in January. On the other hand, Iowa Democratic party boss Jerry Crawford believes a helmet saved his life this winter after a ski accident.
Celebrity death usually does more to influence safety changes than all the lobbyists on Earth. The percentage of skiers and snowboarders wearing helmets has more than doubled since 2003, up to about 60 percent. The American Medical Association found insufficient evidence to endorse mandatory helmet use but supported the voluntary use of helmets for children and adolescents.
Statistical analyses about helmet safety are inconclusive. For example, in provinces with helmet laws, the rate of head injuries among young people decreased by 54 percent and the rate among adults decreased by 26 percent. At the same time, in provinces without the laws, the rate among young riders dropped 33 percent and remained constant among adults. The researchers concluded that other safety initiatives, such as public safety campaigns and the introduction of better infrastructures, rendered the contribution of helmet laws as “minimal.”
Most serious bikers think helmets have a time and place and that going bareheaded does, too. In Iowa, it’s up to the rider.
No one is going to make you wear a helmet.
“I love the feeling of fresh air in my face and the wind blowing through my hair.” – Evil Knievel. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.