The Freedom of Motorcycling


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May 16, 2007

I had been asked by a friend to write something on the freedoms of motorcycle riding. They thought that would be great to hear, how freedom is experienced on bikes. They wanted perhaps an uplifting tale of a motorcycle veteran telling how free he is during his motorcycle besotted existence. I'll tell you motorcycling provides one a feeling of freedom, because it does. But like everything else in America , the freedoms are under attack, in short supply, and riding isn't what it used to be, even in my lifetime.

Motorcyclists are usually a rather obnoxious lot. Most of the bikers I know are individualistically inclined, and like to make their own destiny. Most of them are nice, honest, people ' just don't screw with them or they might do something you wouldn't like. Most of them can figure out a way to find a piece of scrap metal on the side of the road, and turn it into an electrical fuse or a short linkage arm. They have mechanical chutzpah. I believe myself a true biker. I have ridden since I was a child, and I like to ride everything. I actually ride to live, and live to ride, as clich' as that is. I would be as happy on that Honda express scooter as I would on a Harley Road King, I see as much fun on an old Kawasaki 250 dirt bike as I do on a Honda Gold Wing. And to set the record straight, I don't own any of these bikes mentioned, but I love them all. Two wheels and a motor, and the fun begins. I never had so much fun as when I scratched together (rebuilt) an overly abused 1981 Kawasaki KX-80 for my kids. After the rebuild, that little beast squirted out from under me every crack of the throttle ' it was a hoot, and I was the terror of the front yard, for a few days at least.

I ride because I love riding. I love feeling the air temperature change between elevations. I love driving about 50 and having the noise of the bike pass behind me before I can hear it. I love the ripping sound of a well built engine. I love going helmetless on nice days, driving slow. I love wearing helmets when there are lots of bugs, rain, and in moderate or heavy traffic. But there is the rub, for those enthralled with the freedom motorcycling brings ' the damned helmet laws. My life has been spared because I was wearing a helmet during a crash that would have otherwise killed me. But I am no champion of helmet laws. Quite the opposite. I am a pro-choice helmet wearer. I'll show my post-bad-crash split-wide-open full faced helmet (that would have been my skull) to any who inquire, yet will staunchly defend anyone's right to NOT wear a helmet.

I'll purchase and wear the best body armored riding wear made of the finest man-made materials known to science (Goretex and Kevlar), yet I will support anyone who wants to ride in shorts and sandals! I'll buy and wear the very best riding gloves (hands go down first, in the failing thought of 'catching yourself' during a fall) but wear them according to my reading of the weather, traffic, and road conditions. Same with steel toed boots. But I don't care if the buddy I ride with wears a single protective garment or not. I figure they are adults, and have considered the alternative. I know I consider the alternative ' every single ride. I'm a parent ' I have to. I have also lost friends who crashed their bikes and died in my sight.

You see, there is this saying among bikers ' the real kind at least. 'If you ride, it isn't a question of if you go down, it's a question of when.' In its natural state, a motorcycle is at its lowest form of energy while lying on its side. Any thinking person who understands that also understands the quote above. I have ridden motorcycles for all of my adult life, and about half my childhood years, and I have slipped, skid, crashed, dashed, and caromed my way through many kinds of motorcycle disasters. In all lesser cases, I got up, started it again, and rode off. In most cases, I lost some skin, and some paint, usually bent something that wasn't supposed to bend, and in that one particular case, I was strapped to a backboard and placed into an ambulance as my pregnant wife and two boys looked on in horror at the mangled pieces of what was left of my machine (and my split open helmet).

I looked on in horror too, thinking that I had very nearly orphaned my children and widowed my spouse that day. Even so, I still choose whether or not I want to wear a helmet, gloves, boots, and outer garments based upon information made available to me at the time of the ride. I do not want to need any mother's substitute (guvment man) telling me to wear a helmet whether or not I like it, but in many states today, this is what you find.

The mindless unthinking giant hand of Big Brother continues poking itself into the world of motorcycling, where it is not wanted or called for, under the guise of 'we know what's best for you.' This is a sentiment that has been beat to death in most media circles, mostly because in the early '90s, a majority of states voted in helmet laws under sordid and misguided ad campaigns designed by non-riders. Several states fought back, with the help of advocacy groups, and were lucky enough to escape the mad dash to saving our poor motorcycle riders from themselves.

So there has been a shift in freedom since the helmet law was introduced. It is small, somewhat innocuous, and yet there was a certain essential liberty sacrificed (yet again) upon the altar of a little (coerced) safety in the form of wearing a helmet. Its implication is rather larger, more widespread, albeit unknown to most non-riders. Since mandatory helmet laws were passed in most states, one can no longer climb aboard their trusty metal steed sans helmet and ride across country. Doing so will bring about unwanted attention from Dudley Do-right with a badge, and you could end up towed and jailed for not riding with said approved safety device in certain states.

There have been many times during those same years that industry wanks from the mega-billionaire insurance companies sought to limit horsepower and speed on the manufacturers and consumers, since they know so well what's good for us. Those same rapacious insurance wanks are currently up on Capitol Hill using their considerable money and whining about public safety, and they are getting some attention and some results, too. They continue to banter about the old saw of 'all motorcycle accidents are preventable.' I defy any one of them to prove it, ever. Hindsight allows armchair riders with 'You could have' or 'You should have,' but in reality, they didn't and they crashed.

Motorcycles account for 2 percent of all motor vehicles in America . Motorcyclists account for 0.1 percent of all deaths nationwide. Statistically, I could point out that riding a Harley every day for 20 years is not as dangerous to your health as eating a cheeseburger every day for 20 years. The numbers stack up against the cheeseburger (heart disease kills about 420,000 people a year, motorcycles kill about 2,500 a year). Yet we still must wear a helmet. Will they outlaw cheeseburgers? Ugh, never mind. Sorry I asked.

To ride across the United States , you will now need to take a helmet with you. Only four states have no helmet statutes on the books ' Colorado , Illinois , Iowa , and New Hampshire . State by state, each state set its own laws, some quite arbitrarily. Some allow for only CERTAIN helmets be approved, others require helmets by age group (under 18, for instance). Some states allow written medical exemptions. Some have insurance premiums tied to helmet use ( Texas , Florida ). The firm grip of tyranny has not loosened on the world of motorcycling, at least not yet. There are some groups standing up and being counted, like B.O.L.T. (Bikers of Lesser Tolerance), Riders for Justice, and the Helmet Law Defense League. These guys are the forefront of a fairly determined but greatly outnumbered war against the oppressive and intrusive laws affecting the sport of motorcycling.

So yes, I have enjoyed the freedom of hopping on my metal horse and riding off into the sunset ' but I have also been stifled and cramped by oppressive and heinous laws, thus restricting my individual liberty, and affecting my pursuit of happiness thereby. I have traveled across country on two of my bikes, having ridden from Oklahoma to Sacramento and back and from Little Rock to Cape Cod and back. I enjoyed myself during those trips, but both were made prior to helmet laws having swept the nation. I doubt I would enjoy the trips nearly as much were I riding out in Wyoming enjoying the Tetons sans helmet, and enjoying a chance meeting with a state trooper.

The feelings of freedom you get when you ride are natural, instinctual, and holistic. You are surrounded by nature. The air caresses your face and body, whipping your hair, and can be warm or cool, but the sensation is fantastic. The sounds drown in the liquid atmosphere somewhere behind your machine, so you ride in near silence. Birds and bugs take on huge proportions as they zip by you (or more succinctly, into you). I have eaten my share of bugs, and been shellacked well enough on long rides. The humidity and the temperature alternate between elevations and shadows make you realize you are riding in a liquid, like a fish swimming in a large pond. You can hear the birds, the cows, and the wildlife surrounding you. Until you strap on that helmet.

Then you hear your engine, the buffeting of wind, and the bugs. So have my freedoms been lost? Yes. Tangibly? Yes. Measureably? Yes. Can I do anything about it? Perhaps. But regardless, I love to ride, helmet or not. And as long as I can zip along the backs of ragged mountain remnants, watching and listening and enjoying the ride, I will. I just remember how it used to be in the old days, and wonder what is becoming of the liberties I am supposed to inherit by virtue of being American by birth.

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Barry Tudor's picture
Columns on STR: 8

Barry Tudor was born in Arkansas in 1960.  He has travelled the entire U.S. from coast to coast.  He's a motorcycle rider, father of three, husband to one, and hater of those who would remove any more of his liberties for the sake of safety, or any other damned reason!