Opening Pandora's Box
by Mark Buckner
President - Motorcycle Riders Foundation
The motorcyclists' rights movement in America is facing one of its biggest challenges ever, one that if left unchecked has the possibility of tearing down years of dedicated effort. Paradoxically, that challenge is coming not so much from the usual suspects as it is from within our own ranks. The challenge I'm referring to is the proliferation of unfair insurance provisions being attached to helmet law repeal efforts.
Today, these provisions are being promoted under the guise of personal injury protection (PIP) insurance, but keep in mind that the basic concept is anything but new. In years past, as American motorcyclists became more and more adept at fighting helmet laws, the old position of "if only one life can be saved" was largely abandoned by our opponents in favor of monetary arguments. Those arguments took on many faces, but all of them offered the same premise, claiming that motorcyclists riding without helmets cost the taxpayers dearly. Time after time, the enemies of motorcycling presented flawed studies and outright lies in an attempt to convince legislators that motorcyclists as a group were either uninsured or underinsured, and should therefore be forced to wear a helmet to protect society from having to bear the cost of our supposed irresponsibility. Time after time we challenged those studies and statements, proving that we were just as likely to have adequate coverage as any other group of people. Yet now we find those lies gaining a stranglehold on our freedom. We find that what our enemies could not accomplish on their own is being handed to them by motorcyclists' rights activists in a shortsighted attempt to repeal existing helmet laws.
It's important that we put things into their proper perspective, and that we understand that in the grand scheme of things helmet laws are little more than a speck on the wall. Like other oppressive legislation, these laws should be opposed by a freedom loving people. But we must realize that helmet laws are only one of many tools used by those who believe government, not the people, should control how we live our lives, and are but a means to an end. This begs several questions. Do we fight against helmet laws? Yes, of course we do. We always have and we always will. Do we work to repeal them? Yes, but we do it on our terms, without compromising our core values. And finally, are helmet laws the biggest threat to motorcycling? Absolutely not. A good friend of mine has said for years that, "Its not a helmet they want on your head. Its your butt on a bus." We must understand that the ultimate objective of our enemies is the end of motorcycling and all other so-called "dangerous" activities, and that by endorsing the social burden theory we are opening a Pandora's Box and actually helping to bring that objective closer to realization. Make no mistake about it. What's at stake here is motorcycling as we know it.
Unfortunately, there are those within our ranks who either don't understand the issues (or refuse to acknowledge what's happening), or who knowingly would rather roll the dice, with the future of motorcycling hanging in the balance, than take the longer and harder road to achieving our goals. "Alarmist!", they cry. "You're making a mountain out of a molehill!" I disagree. Its no secret that the easiest way to control any segment of the populace is through their pocketbook, and if we accept the lie that says motorcyclists should be required to carry additional coverage if they choose to ride without a helmet, we are opening the door to being priced right off of the road. Can't happen here, you say? Consider that state laws have already been proposed that, if passed, would have required motorcyclists to carry up to $1,000,000.00 in additional health insurance, over and above any coverage they may already have. In terms that bring this message home to roost, a law like that would mean an average rider would be paying an exorbitant amount each year just to ride legally, that is if you could find an insurance company that offered such coverage. And for those of us who ride with our wives or husbands, those costs would double. Consider that insurance rates rarely stay the same, and that an increase in premiums over time is not just a possibility, but a near certainty. And to anyone who feels this is an issue that only affects states with mandatory helmet laws for all riders, please remember that freedom of choice states are under attack as well, as evidenced by the recent introduction of a PIP bill in the state of New Hampshire. Fortunately, that legislation was stopped in its tracks, primarily due to the efforts of the New Hampshire Motorcyclists Rights Organization.
The cry has also gone up that individual state motorcyclists' rights organizations (SMROs) should decide what is best in their own states, and that national organizations and other SMROs should mind their own business if they happen to disagree with the position being endorsed. Unfortunately, it's just not that simple. When it comes to our core issues, such as accepting or denying the social burden theory, what one state does absolutely affects all of us. Since the state of Texas passed legislation endorsing the social burden concept, similar language has found its way into numerous state legislatures, and continues to do so.
We in the motorcyclists' rights movement have become very good at networking, meaning we share information freely and quickly with each other. That information includes strategies that work, and strategies to avoid. We need to remember that our enemies network as well, and the successful (in their eyes) inclusion of insurance provisions in the Texas repeal is being shared with like minded people all over the country. In short, these people are talking to their friends in the legislature. We should also be aware that many state legislators belong to groups such as the NCSL (National Council of State Legislators), ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), or CSG (Council of State Governments). Not only do these organizations have conferences where legislators meet and talk, they have committees who review new state laws dealing with new or emerging issues, or with creative ways to deal with issues that have been around for years. Many of these ideas get published and distributed to state legislators all over the country, as did a recent paper from the NCSL dealing with helmet laws. And don't forget that lobby organizations who are not friendly to motorcyclists set up booths at these conventions to promote their causes and issues. Typically, because of a lack of money, motorcyclists don't have a presence there. It would be very foolish of us to think we are the only ones smart enough to talk amongst ourselves and to encourage legislators friendly to our cause to talk amongst themselves.
Another point to consider is that some activists, who are either actively or passively promoting repeal efforts that include insurance provisions, are also saying that these amendments can be stripped out at a later date. Their position is that the insurance portions of the bill can be removed either after the fact (meaning after the law takes affect) or sometime during the process of repeal. There are three things wrong with this approach. First off, it's a well known fact that getting rid of onerous legislation is much more difficult than stopping it from becoming law in the first place. Secondly, if these activists know this is bad legislation, as their strategy suggests, why support it in the first place? Going forward with a helmet law repeal under these circumstances suggests that the state is more interested in short term gratification (getting rid of the helmet law regardless of the possible consequences) than in the long term effects. And finally, if enough states pass laws with insurance requirements, state legislators are going to wonder why they should change something that motorcyclists originally supported, or at least didn't find offensive enough to cause them to pull the bill. Legislators will also be reminded by our opponents that similar laws are being considered and or passed in other states and that the concept seems to be working.
Please remember that the motorcyclists' rights movement has never been about instant gratification. It has always been about letting our adversaries know that we won't go away, that we will continue to fight for our rights and stand up for our principles. It has always been about protecting motorcycling for the long haul without compromising our core values. As a group, we must not bow to this shortsighted approach. We must not give in to desperation, thinking that the only way we'll ever repeal helmet laws in some states is through compromising on a core issue. In the State of Arkansas, a helmet law was repealed after being in existence for thirty years. The activists in Arkansas wanted that law gone as much as anyone in the country, but they did not compromise. They understood that they were in this for the long run, and they won on their terms. Other states, like Pennsylvania, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, are still working on their repeals. In each of these states, a deal has been offered, a deal that includes some form of insurance provision, but to their credit these SMROs but have said no thank you. They've decided they'll just keep working until they repeal the right way.
The struggle for freedom is a running battle, one that must be fought time after time after time. When we win, we must be prepared to go into battle again, knowing that our enemies are waiting only for an opening, an opportunity, to take back the ground they lost. This is the nature of war. If we do not stand up for our core beliefs, if we compromise on the issue of motorcyclists as social burdens to society, all we'll accomplish is the destruction of that which we are supposedly fighting to protect. If you value motorcycling as we know it, don't be tempted by this Pandora's Box. Stick to your principles and win on your own terms.
Undoubtedly, there will be people who disagree with this article, who will see it as a personal attack on themselves and their organizations. To them, I make no apologies. The Motorcycle Riders Foundation sees insurance provisions being included in helmet law debates for what they are, and will continue to work against this very real threat to motorcycling by continuing to educate those within our movement who have the resolve necessary for the job at hand.