Nibbling away at our freedoms

February 26, 1999

ANNAPOLIS - In a committee hearing room, Pappy Boward whispers in the ear of a senator and good-naturedly pats the shoulder of an opponent with the casual aplomb of one who is skilled in jabbing chairs in the whiskers of the legislative tigers who pace the rings of Maryland's General Assembly circus.

It's a talent Boward, a Smithsburg resident and executive director of the motorcycle advocacy group ABATE, no doubt wishes he didn't need.

In 1992 the state government - under pressure from the federal government, which always seems to believe it is under pressure from God - legally required motorcycle riders to wear helmets.

Motorcycle helmets are one of those socks-in-the-shower issues that is hard for non-riders to understand. But as Sen. Alex Mooney knows, the issue has less to do with the comfort of riders than the comfort of American citizens to live in a land where they are not perpetually being told by the government what, and what not, to do.


Mooney has to be calmed down when brandishing a position paper from the GEICO insurance company that wraps up with the words "some rights are not worth having."

Insurance companies and the state weigh in on the helmet issue under the mantle of wishing to preserve lives when the more salient motivation is preservation of their respective bankrolls.

Maryland, tellingly, only passed a motorcycle helmet law when the federal highway administration threatened to withhold federal funding if it didn't. And somehow GEICO lobbyists never seem to make it to legislative hearings on life-preservation issues where their own balance sheet is not affected.

The state says motorcycle deaths are down since the 1992 helmet law was passed, and stops there - just as 55-mph speed limit advocates stop abruptly after reporting that deaths are up in states that raise the speed limit.

As for the speed limits, when considering the number of fatalities-per-mile driven, the statistically truthful way to calculate it, higher speeds do not increase death. And Boward says motorcycle deaths are down because motorcycle accidents are down, due largely to safety programs aggressively pursued by the motorcyclists themselves. Looking at the number of deaths-per-accident, the rate actually went up last year, helmets and all, Boward says.

Statistical jousting aside, however, common sense says that it's riskier to ride without a helmet. Just as it's riskier to ride a motorcycle than drive a car. Just as it's riskier to drive a small car than it is a big car. The state says it is saving lives by compelling helmets. It would also save lives by requiring everyone to drive a Volvo or, better yet, to stay home altogether.

When Jefferson wrote of the pursuit of happiness he wasn't specifically talking about the freedom that comes with riding a motorcycle without a helmet. But the statement recognizes there are rewards and there are risks.

To some, all the freedom they need is to put their money into savings accounts and spend their evenings watching "Friends." If that makes them happy, fine. For others to achieve happiness, it takes a bit more - Internet stocks, rock climbing or a strong wind in their faces.

The government has a greater responsibility to protect kids (there's no argument youth should have to wear helmets) and to protect adults where there is a clear danger, such as regulation of bungee-jumping operations.

Helmets aren't on the same plane as free speech or free religion. But helmet laws, confiscation of property for low-rent crimes, surveillance cameras in public places, government perusal of personal e-mail, unfettered tax collectors, unrestricted special prosecutors, tobacco lawsuits, gun laws and behavior modification in the name of safety all fall into the category that I call "nibbling."

Individually they may not seem like much, but together it's the camel's nose under the tent, the government nibbling away at choices, nibbling away at freedoms and nibbling away at the pursuit of happiness.

GEICO says some rights aren't worth having. Mooney says who's to decide what rights are and aren't? The government? Hardly. The government is becoming less of a protector and more of in intruder. Police departments are becoming less of a service and more of an industry.

Government is necessary and most of what the government and police do is good. But control over any aspect of our lives should not be taken lightly, be it wearing a helmet, monitoring electronic mail or telling parents how they should raise their kids.

On Tuesday Boward and about 20 other people with boots and unusual haircuts sat in an Annapolis hearing room fighting for their rights as motorcycle riders. But in the larger sense, they were fighting for us all.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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