Uneasy Riders In California

February 21, 1992|By Jane Meredith Adams | Jane Meredith Adams,Contributing Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- Jim Poket hugged the black Harley-Davidson through a curve, then blasted along the straightaway by the beach. With the roar of the bike in his ears, he cranked it up a bit more, a highway cowboy challenging the elements, an embodiment of one of the most powerful personal myths of California.

"It's the greatest escape," he said, his words flying through the wind. But there was regret in his voice. "It's not just you and the bike now."

He was talking about helmets. Something has been given up since a mandatory motorcycle helmet law took effect this year in California, home to one motorcyclist in five in the nation.

The law's proponents would say that what have been lost are cracked skulls and deaths and medical bills that are passed on to the taxpayers.

Bikers, an oddly romantic group, will say otherwise. A way of life has perished on the winding coastal roads here, they say; a life that involved the choice of whether to wear a helmet or feel the wind in your hair. And these bikers, whose defiance has been portrayed in such films as "The Wild Ones," plan to take it back.

"We'll never give up," said Paul Lax, state director of ABATE, an anti-helmet group that is preparing several legislative challenges, including a repeal effort.

(In Maryland, bikers are similarly determined to hold on to their right to ride helmet-free despite indications from Gov. William Donald Schaefer that if the General Assembly passes a helmet law this year, he will sign it.)

"We should take a lesson from General Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf on how to win a FIGHT," wrote the publisher of Easyriders, a California-based motorcycle magazine with a large national circulation.

The magazine's January issue, called for a test of the helmet law to be taken to the Supreme Court. The magazine also announced plans for "a worldwide helmet protest rally" next summer and included a poster showing an American flag dripping blood over a helmet.

In Southern California, a Sikh motorcycle owner has filed suit, saying he cannot use a helmet because of the turban he wears as part of his religious faith. Joining him in the suit is a biker who wears a hearing aid and says that the helmet makes hearing impossible.

Attorney Wendy C. Lascher is seeking a preliminary injunction until the suit is tried. A ruling on the request is expected on Wednesday.

At motorcycle shops and biker bars, what begins as a conversation about helmet safety in no time becomes a discussion about freedom.

"I'm 26 and I've been riding since I was 8 years old," said Hank Minkey, a motorcycle salesman. "I'm a safe rider. When you're driving down the beach with no car in sight, why do you need a helmet? It's too much Big Brother. . . . It's supposed to be a free country. That's why we left England."

And many challenge the idea that wearing a helmet will keep them alive. "I hate it. It's unsafe," said Bruce Stanberry, who commutes 200 miles a day on his burgundy Harley. "I almost killed myself -- that's why I stopped wearing a helmet five years ago."

Mr. Stanberry said that the helmet blocks peripheral vision and

that the shield fogs up inside. Riders wearing helmets in accidents also are more likely to suffer whiplash, he said.

Despite protests and a rally of hundreds of angry bikers in Sacramento, the California Highway Patrol reports widespread compliance. Violating the law carries a $100 fine for the first offense, $200 for the second and $250 for the third. When local fees are added to the fines, the amount can increase substantially.

The Highway Patrol is projecting that the helmet law will save 150 to 200 lives this year, based on the experience of other states that have adopted mandatory helmet laws. But motorcycle groups say that states without helmet laws report fewer deaths per capita than states with helmet laws.

No one denies California's bottom line statistics: In 1990, 18,578 motorcyclists were injured and 569 killed. But that, too, is accepted by some bikers with the fatalism of those who like to live close to danger.

"Riding without a helmet is like being in a convertible," Mr. Minkey said. "It's romantic and sexy. You're flirting with death. That's the whole mystery about it."

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