February generally marks the middle of the legislative session each year. And as regular as clockwork, there will be a discussion in the riding community and among sympathetic legislators as to the wisdom of the mandatory helmet law in Washington. It’s always been a priority of the rider advocacy groups across the country. It’s the original genesis for the ABATE chapters nationwide. Like every political movement it was started to oppose or support a specific idea – like Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
And every year they make some progress – some years more than others. However, the arguments always remain the same. Riders should have the right to choose whether or not to wear a helmet. As a libertarian I can’t argue with that logic. By the same token we can argue that drivers should choose whether or not to wear a seatbelt. However, very few legislators respond well to either of those arguments, and it often works the opposite way. They’ll say since we require drivers to wear seatbelts we should require riders to wear helmets. (Hey, at least they’ve not mandated seatbelts on motorcycles – yet.)
But if there’s one particular lobbying group that tends to have a disproportionate amount of power relative to their numbers in the real world it’s the bicycle lobby. As any resident of Seattle, Portland or any big city in the northwest will attest to, the bike riders seem to get more of what they want than just about any other group. (If you listen to them they’ll tell you they don’t get anything, but that’s because they feel that they should have everything they want and when they get most of it, they tend to be mad they don’t get it all, but I digress.)
And do you know what has the bike lobby all up in arms these days? Mandatory helmet requirements. (Sound familiar?). The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended mandatory helmet requirements nationwide. “Head injury is the leading cause of bicycle-related deaths” says the NTSB, and they are putting their considerable weight behind a push to require that everyone should wear an age appropriate bike helmet when riding bike. Currently there is no state requirement for helmets in any state, however a few municipalities like Seattle and King County do require bike riders to wear a helmet when “riding in public.” (As opposed to what -- riding in private?). Oregon requires anyone under sixteen years of age to wear one.
But that simple recommendation has bike advocates all up in arms. Listen to some of these arguments: “Helmets only work after the crash has happened – we need to make sure the crash doesn’t happen in the first place.” “Helmets are a distraction.” “The issue should be safer streets, slower speeds, and more emphasis on driver education.” And my two favorite ones: “it gives police an excuse to stop some cyclists and find other reasons to detain them,” and “Mandatory helmet laws discourage bicycling and we’ve seen enforcement be uneven and target people of color.”
All of those arguments – every single one of them – can and has been used to try and persuade policy makers that the motorcycle helmet law should be repealed. Yet we’ve had much less luck than our skinny-tire foot-powered riding brethren. Why is that? I do think there is, for whatever reason, an inherent prejudice against motorcycle riders, especially in the transportation departments of major government agencies – local, state and federal. Corinne Kisner, the executive director of the National Association of Transportation Officials said, in response to the NTSB recommendation, “While requiring helmets may seem like an intuitive way to protect riders, the evidence doesn’t bear this out. Experience has shown that while bike helmets can be protective, bike helmet laws are not.” Care to bet if she’d say the same thing about motorcycle riders?
We all know that politics and policy making can be unfair at times. Loud voices get disproportionate attention, and well-funded lobbying groups often have more power than their numbers would warrant. Consistency in policy arguments are rare. But in watching the bicycle riders go through the same arguments that we motorcyclists have been saying for years means that there is merit in their arguments. One has to wonder if the consistency argument could work in our favor. I’d like to think so, but I’ve been around the policy making arena my entire life – I’d be more inclined to say that it would work against the bicycle riders. It’s much easier for a policy maker to say, “motorcycle riders have to wear helmets, you should too”, than for them to say, “well if we aren’t going to make the bike riders wear them, we shouldn’t make the motorcycle riders wear them either.”
And since misery loves company, maybe we can capture a pyrrhic victory of sorts by pushing that argument and making them as miserable as motorcycle riders are by being forced to wear a helmet. After all, it’s only fair – right? Schadenfreude is the German term for taking pleasure in another person’s misery. If we can’t win our arguments against mandatory helmets, maybe a little schadenfreude for the bike riders should make us feel good for a minute don’t you think?