Recent developments in Texas regarding the helmet law repeal efforts have raised a number of concerns that have the potential to have very damaging consequences to motorcycling in general and freedom of choice in helmet use in particular.
THE PROBLEM During debate this year on repealing the Texas helmet law for adults several amendments were attached. In the House an amendment was attached that would require those wanting to ride without a helmet to have completed a motorcycle rider education course. In the Senate two more onerous amendments were attached. One would require those wanting to ride without a helmet to carry a health insurance plan with a minimum of $10,000 coverage. The other stated that if a person riding without a helmet received a head injury they would not be eligible for the Texas catastrophic health care fund.
The strategy of the Texas motorcyclists was to have these amendments stripped out in conference committee. However, during the conference committee meetings between May 8th and May 12th that did not happen. Instead, the conference committee on SB 99 reached an agreement that would require the following for an individual to ride without a helmet: 1) The individual would have to be 21 years of age or older, and; 2) The individual would be required to have taken a rider education course or have a health insurance plan that provided a minimum of $10,000 coverage. In addition, a provision was added that would provide for a "special sticker" that motorcyclists could put on their license plate to show they complied with the requirements to ride without a helmet.
The conference committee has reported out SB 99 and it is three short steps away from passage. The bill will be referred to both the House and Senate for concurrence votes, which only require a simple majority vote. If both the House and Senate vote for concurrence then SB 99 will be sent to Governor George W. Bush for his action. He has three options, signing the bill into law, letting the bill become law without his signature or vetoing the bill. Should he veto the bill, while the legislature is still in session, a fourth step would be added where both the House and Senate could override his veto with a 2/3 majority vote in both bodies. Currently, the Texas Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on June 2, 1997.
It has been reported to the MRF that all of the organized motorcyclist groups in Texas working for motorcyclists rights have endorsed this "compromise" and will be working for passage of the conference agreement on SB 99.
THE CONCERNS The MRF's biggest concern is that this is the first time that any state or national motorcyclists rights organization has broken ranks and conceded that riding a motorcycle is such a "high risk" activity that we inflict an extraordinary "social burden" on our society and that we must have additional financial securities above what the rest of society is required to meet for any other activity. The most damaging issue facing motorcycling, not just freedom of choice on helmet use but motorcycling itself, is the concept of motorcyclists being "social burdens." Never before have motorcyclists rights activists accepted the fact that we are a social burden; the Motorcycle Riders Foundation still does not acknowledge or accept the premise that motorcyclists are a "social burden."
The "social burden" concept for motorcyclists comes from the very high risk assessment assigned to the activity of riding motorcycles, mostly by the medical and insurance industries, based on assumptions rooted in fear and emotion rather than fact. Even many motorcyclists tend to make inaccurate risk assessments because factual information is so overwhelmed by myths. The infamous "Harborview Medical Center Study" was a perfect example of building on such misconceptions by portraying the "public burden" of motorcycle accident victims. Close investigation revealed that the motorcyclists reliance on public funds was, in fact, below the average for the Harborview's overall patient population. In addition the 1992 study by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center showed that motorcyclists relied on public assistance less than any other road and non-road trauma victims. Objective, non-emotional, review of the facts show motorcyclists are not "social burdens."
As a compassionate society, we will always provide some level of public assistance to come to the aid of our fellow citizens who suffer misfortune. To pass judgment on other's assessment of some particular level of risk in their personal "pursuit of happiness" is difficult at best and impossible when fear and emotion interfere with the factual information on which one's personal choices are based. A mid-western, suburban shopping center survey some years ago indicated that the majority of the motorists either feared or resented motorcyclists they observed on the road. The word for this is "prejudice" and this, as well, provides impetus to this kind of discriminatory legislation.
In light of these issues, the MRF is concerned that by having any State motorcyclists Rights Organizations (SMROs) go on record acknowledging that motorcycles are "too risky" and motorcyclists are a "social burden" it will fuel that debate in other state legislatures, and possibly at the national level as well. The MRF believes there will be grave consequences to motorcycling and motorcyclists rights if any SMRO allows legislation requiring special insurance or fees on motorcyclists to compensate for the supposed "social burden" of motorcyclists to become law.
On a philosophic note, MRF is concerned about the issue of not compromising freedom for adult motorcyclists. Do you really gain freedom when a series of conditions, that some may not be able to comply with, must be met to qualify for freedom? What happens to a motorcyclist who is from a state that does not offer rider education and can not get health insurance because of other health problems? Or, what about a handicapped motorcyclist resident of that state, who because he or she can only ride a trike or bike with a sidecar, for which there is no rider education program, and because of his or her handicap can not get the required health insurance? And, what happens when the insurance industry or employers (i.e. Sturm, Ruger and Co.) stop providing coverage for those injured while not wearing a helmet?
Another issue that should be taken under consideration is: The effect this action will have on the efforts in the other states to gain or maintain freedom of choice. Though this is state legislation that on the surface only affects one state, it actually goes far beyond the borders of one state. We live in the United States of America. What happens with legislation in one state does effect what legislation is introduced and enacted in other states. If this type of legislation is enacted in one state, it is very likely that insurance requirement amendments will start being offered in every other state that is trying to repeal their helmet law. And, their legs will have been kicked out from under them, because the sponsors of this amendment will say: "Well, the bikers in other states have agreed with this so it must be O.K. for motorcyclists, why are you opposed to it?"
Motorcyclists in states considering these types of insurance requirements or special fees in order to gain freedom of choice should also consider what effect this will have in the states that do not have helmet laws. One of the reasons that we are having success in moving forward helmet law repeal efforts in so many states is that since 1983, 25 states have maintained freedom of choice. If those 25 states had collapsed and allowed helmet laws to be enacted during the four years of federal penalties, from 1991 to 1995, we would still have federal penalties and there would be no realistic chance for any state to repeal their helmet laws. The states working to repeal helmet laws owe a debt to the 25 states that have kept freedom alive for the last 14 years and should not take actions that undermine or compromise those states' efforts to maintain their own freedom.
If this type of insurance requirement is enacted MRF is confident that we will see it introduced not only in states with helmet laws but in states without helmet laws as well. We say this because just a few weeks ago we had staff of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety tell MRF that they were very closely following the Texas insurance amendment on the helmet law legislation because they found it very interesting!
As for the provision for "special stickers," the MRF believes this provision shows the discriminatory and inappropriate nature of the requirements being imposed by this type of legislation. In the United States of America one of our most important judicial protections is that we are presumed innocent until proven guilty. In this case motorcyclists are being asked to prove their innocence ahead of time. Additionally, most of us thought the practice of labeling classes of people, like was done in Europe in the 1930's and 1940's, with "special labels" was ended in 1945.
In regards to the rider education amendment there are several reasons, in addition to believing we should not qualify freedom for adults, the Motorcycle Riders Foundation opposes a mandatory rider education requirement. First, trading off one mandate for another is not gaining freedom. Second, rider education works well, in large part, because people who attend it want to be there and produce a positive learning environment. If someone is there only to meet a requirement to ride without a helmet in many cases they will be there with a negative attitude, which will detract from everyone else is learning experience. Another concern is the inability of the state to provide training to the large influx of new students that will result from the passage of this legislation.
SUMMARY In light of these concerns and the need for the motorcyclists rights movement to stand united on the fact that motorcyclists are not "social burdens" and that motorcycling is not extremely risky, the Motorcycle Riders Foundation requests all SMROs to oppose legislation that would require motorcyclists to have extra medical insurance or pay special fees that are not required by the rest of the population. In addition, the MRF requests all SMROs to oppose requirements for mandatory rider education for riders in order to be able to ride without a helmet. And lastly, the MRF requests all SMROs to oppose the discriminatory practice of "special labeling" of motorcyclists. The MRF believes these are critical issues on which the motorcyclists rights movement must stay united in order to maintain freedom of choice on helmet use and to protect our right to ride motorcycles in the future.
by Wayne T. Curtin,
Vice President Government Relations, Motorcycle Riders Foundation
May 23, 1997
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