One More Chip in the Edifice of Liberty

GIFFEN B. NICKOL

February 26, 1992|By GIFFEN B. NICKOL

For most of this country's history, we accepted the idea that adult citizens should have the right to live their lives free of unwarranted restriction, and we curtailed personal liberty only when it was necessary to protect others from physical harm. A famous slogan is that one's right to swing one's fist ends where another's nose begins.

Lately, however, a much narrower view of liberty has become fashionable in some circles which seek to restrict freedom based on some alleged ''cost to society.''

But nothing that any of us does occurs in a vacuum; any action we take affects others in some way. And anything that might conceivably result in the use of government resources to rescue, repair or rehabilitate us can easily be said to have a societal cost.

A second, and more insidious, danger in the ''cost-to-society'' argument is that it can be used by elitists to promote majoritarian oppression of those who fail to conform to politically correct notions of the day.

Nevertheless, the Maryland General Assembly accepted the ''cost-to-society'' rationale last week in enacting a law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets.

Most motorcyclists wear helmets at least part of the time they ride. And many motorcyclists -- myself included -- wear helmets whenever we ride. Clearly, we have no objection to helmet use. But as adult citizens of what is supposed to be a free society, we bTC object strongly to the notion that our helmet use should be compulsory, rather than voluntary. Furthermore, we find the empirical case for a helmet law to be anything but overwhelming.

A helmet law, we are told, is necessary because it will save lives on Maryland highways. But in Virginia, which has such a law, the death rate for motorcyclists is actually higher than it is in Maryland: 3.29 versus 2.63 per 100 accidents. Pennsylvania, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, Massachusetts and Florida are other helmet-law states with higher motorcycle death rates than Maryland. Clearly, helmet laws, in and of themselves, cannot be called effective lifesavers.

Nor can the ''cost to society'' of injured motorcyclists, alleged by the state to be $1.3 million, justify the imposition of a helmet law. The study from which that figure is derived -- the so-called Shankar study -- tabulated the cost of all injuries to unhelmeted ,, motorcyclists, not just head injuries, and even went so far as to include pedestrians struck by motorcyclists. The study's author

admits that his figures are ''inflated.''

Even if a legitimate case could be made for a helmet law, we motorcyclists can't help but wonder why we are being singled out as beneficiaries of the state's concern. After all, many others who engage in various recreational activities -- including bicycling, boating and skiing -- are not required by law to wear any special safety equipment. And the same administration that champions a woman's right to decide whether to bear a child argues that she has no right to decide whether to ride her motorcycle bareheaded.

It is hypocritical, to say the least, to complain about motorcyclists' ''cost to society'' while accepting the price of some other citizens' acts. Tobacco users who become ill, Ocean City property owners, S&L investors, AIDS patients, and sports-team owners have all been the beneficiaries of taxpayer dollars, without being branded sociopathic. It is hard to dismiss the suspicion that what motivates many helmet-law supporters is not the wish to save lives and money, but the desire to control those whom they consider to be their social inferiors.

It takes no devotion to liberty to defend the actions of those with whom we agree. The truest test -- indeed the only test -- of our commitment to personal freedom is our willingness to tolerate the speech or conduct of those with whom we disagree. This is not often easy, but if ''Liberty'' is more than a word on the coins in our pockets, we must permit others to live their lives as they see fit.

Giffen B. Nickol is a member of the American Motorcyclist Association.

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