Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Bikers Dying to Look Macho

Get a dictionary. Look up "ironic."

If it's been updated since this past weekend, your dictionary's entry might include this story as an example:

While riding his motorcycle in a rally staged to protest helmet laws, Philip Contos had an accident, hit his unprotected head on the pavement, and died within minutes. Doctors ascertained that his lethal brain injuries would not have been sustained had he been wearing... his helmet.

Don't you wonder if, right now, Contos might love a second chance to change his mind?

American Bikers Aimed Towards Education (ABATE), the group which organized the rally this past weekend near Syracuse, New York, is opposed to laws mandating helmets for anybody on a motorcycle.

And then Contos inadvertently proved why their position is a fallacy.


In 1959, my uncle was piloting his motorcycle along a scenic, rural stretch of roadway on an idyllic coastal island in Maine. Rounding a curve, police suspect the tires of his bike lost traction while going over gravel and pebbles along the roadside, and my uncle crashed.

A kindly farmer discovered him, dead, and before long, the whole community in that sparsely-populated corner of the county was shaking its collective head at the tragedy.

Back then, there were no helmet laws, just as there were no seatbelt laws for cars. Or, for that matter, any of the many Nanny State laws Americans deride today. Safety was an individual responsibility, yes, but some dangers weren't widely acknowledged. Today, we have all sorts of studies proving how essential motorcycle helmets and seatbelts are, plus public awareness campaigns to spread the word. But my late uncle, at the time the most free-spirited guy in my Mom's family, probably would be bristling at them were he alive today, just as Contos, the motorcyclist in Upstate New York, did this past weekend.

Celebrating his "freedom" to ride unprotected.

There Are Reasons We've Got Too Many Laws

Granted, like ABATE argues on their website, the best way to prevent motorcycle-related death and injury is good training for motorcyclists to avoid accidents in the first place. Helmets aren't always going to save lives, nor can helmets prevent accidents. But doesn't that still miss the point?

Helmet laws aren't intended to prevent accidents, either. They're intended to prevent deaths and brain injuries so the motorcyclist can live to ride another day. The health benefits of wearing a helmet are indisputable, and should be enough to encourage bike riders to voluntarily wear a helmet so that a law wouldn't be necessary.

But they don't, so it is.

ABATE argues that since many motorcycle-related deaths involve alcohol and/or unlicensed motorcyclists, how will adding yet another law to the mix really make bike-riding safer? People who will drive a motorcycle drunk probably won't bother to strap on a helmet, either.

With that logic, however, we could unravel our legal code backwards to virtual anarchy which, while that may sound attractive to knee-jerk Americans, isn't conducive to a civilized, productive, and beneficial society.

I'm Not a Wuss

I suspect the real, deep-seated, motivating force behind the animosity towards helmet laws involves the thirst for freedom, the craving for the adrenaline rush, and an infatuation with the bad-boy image riders get by not wearing a helmet. Helmets don't let your hair shoot back in the breeze (I'll have to take somebody else's word on that), they can look dorky, and - at least for people who bristle at rules - they can create the impression that you're a slave to government totalitarianism. That you're a pawn of the Nanny State. That you're a wuss.

Most people don't ride a motorcycle to convey an image of being a wuss. My own uncle didn't, and "wuss" wasn't even a word in 1959.

But that's the main issue here, isn't it?

It's not about demanding the freedom of helmet choice. It's not about the right to be stupid. It's plain and simple selfishness on the part of people who don't like being told what to do, and the lifestyle celebrated by people who don't like being told what to do.

Ironically, it's the very same people who don't like being told what to do who usually need a nanny, and that's why Nanny-State-creep has been taking over the United States. People who don't like being responsible and making good choices usually cause a situation when somebody else has to make those choices for them. All of a sudden, people begin to realize that we've become engulfed in a sea of laws, and automatically assume that laws restrict freedom. But what is freedom, anyway? Hasn't the term "freedom" been taken out of context here?

Free to Be...

No, not every motorcycle rider is a scofflaw or habitually irresponsible. And no, it's not particularly fair for all motorcyclists to be penalized because of the bad behavior of a minority. Most bike riders will live their entire life without getting into an accident, let alone needing to protect their skull as they bounce down a concrete road. So for them, having another law requiring something that's common sense seems onerous.

But since enough people don't exercise common sense and take advantage of inventions designed to protect them, since the economic costs of accidental death and brain injury can be enormous, and since the social costs of not wearing a helmet can be devastating to one's family and heirs, who's the one with a disjointed perspective?

We all know about health and life insurance factors when it comes to irresponsible behavior. We also sympathize for family members left behind when loved ones die simply for not taking basic precautions. And I speak from my own family's grief when it comes to motorcyclists not wearing helmets. It's a selfish decision to make, not wearing a helmet, and a pointless way to die or, perhaps even worse, end up spending the rest of your life in a vegetative state.

Here in Texas, you don't have to wear a motorcycle helmet if you can prove that you have enough insurance to cover your hospitalization should you get injured while not wearing one. And maybe that's a decent compromise, if you insist on refusing to protect one of your body's most critical organs.

But whenever I see motorcyclists riding around helmetless, I don't see a person demonstrating personal freedom. Or somebody wealthy enough to afford extra insurance. Or some masculine, macho, testosterone-fueled cool dude. Or dudette.

I see a person demonstrating a profound lack of common sense.

After Contos' death in New York, some readers responding to news coverage of the tragedy echoed a common refrain: they'd rather die free than being forced to wear a helmet.

Yeah. I'm sure that's what our Founding Fathers had in mind while they were fighting the British 235 years ago.

"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of death by lack of common sense."

Doesn't have the same ring, does it?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your feedback!