Suggesting that riding without a helmet is a good idea is, in most circles, about as popular as proposing a “Crack for Kids” program at the local School Board meeting. People get pretty agitated, and tend to think you’re out to undermine the very foundation of society. Regardless of that, I think riding without a helmet can be worth the risk, and I want to say so. If your mind is made up, you might as well skip the rest of this rant and move on. If you want to talk about it, I’d enjoy hearing your opinions.
I literally grew up wearing helmets. They were mandatory in Florida long before I could ride a motorcycle, legally or otherwise. The first bike I rode was a Honda 150 back in 1968; I used to borrow it from a friend and ride it around the neighborhood at the age of 12. I always borrowed the guy’s helmet too. About 4 years later I got my first tickets on two wheels when I borrowed a guy’s moped and rode it down a dirt road at a park. The cop decided to teach me a lesson and wrote me for no helmet, no license plate, no turn signals, and no registration. That incident clearly set the stage for my future relationship with the Florida DMV, but that’s another rant.
Not long after that incident, I got my first real bike, a Yamaha RD-350 in black and orange. The guy I bought it from gave me the standard helmet of the day, open front with the three snaps across the top to secure a face shield. I think it was purple with metal flake. I bought this goofy bubble-shaped hard plastic shield in yellow, which for some reason I thought was really cool. Not long after that, I got to borrow my friends Bell full-face helmet (back in those days Bell was synonymous with full-faced helmets, at least with the guys I hung out with) and from that point on, that’s what I wore. Eventually I settled on Shoei, and always got white ones to try to keep the heat down. And, in fact, when I do wear a helmet these days, that’s what I still wear.
As the years went by, I was peripherally aware of ABATE, the nationwide anti-helmet law organization. Originally their initials stood for “A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments,” but once the 70’s were over they toned it down to “American Bikers Aimed Toward Education.” Or something like that depending on what state you're in. They had fund raising events, lobbied the Legislature and Governor, and had an annual ride to Tallahassee to try to get the helmet law repealed, or at least modified. Back in the summer of 2000, they finally succeeded. The law wasn’t repealed, but it was changed to allow riders over 21 to ride without a helmet as long as they had a special $10,000 medical insurance policy to cover the cost of stuffing their brains back in their heads after an accident. Two interesting notes here: nobody could find any insurance company that offered this policy, and nobody could clearly explain what the heck this caveat really meant, so de-facto, the clause was meaningless. The other interesting side note is ABATE. Not long after the law was passed, I met a member handing out flyers for another fund raiser at one of the local motorcycle parts stores. When I asked what the heck they were collecting money for since they’d won, she looked confused and said: “well, they may change their minds!” Frankly, I think she was simply proving the “Iron Law of Oligarchy,” which essentially states that no matter what an organization is formed for initially; eventually its purpose becomes its own continuation, growth, and the aggrandizement of its leadership.
When the new law was announced, I said to myself and others that I’d never ride without a helmet. I reasoned that it would be pointlessly risky, and I didn’t want to end up a vegetable, disfigured, or dead. But it didn’t take too long before “it” happened. I tasted the forbidden fruit. I’ve forgotten exactly when, where, or why I wound up riding without a helmet, but I did. I loved it. I didn't want to wear a helmet any more.
I decided to try a small helmet instead of a full-face one to see if I could get the same feeling I had with no helmet. It was better, but still not the same. The only downside I found was the rain. I cannot ride without a helmet and face shield in the rain, it just hurts too much. I’ve always worn earplugs when I ride, so the wind noise without a helmet is manageable.
I don’t always ride without a helmet. In addition to rainy conditions, I usually wear a helmet during commuting hours, long trips at high speeds, and when it’s cold out. But last night I took a ride under the stars without, and I will say this: for me, that ride without the helmet was far more enjoyable than it would have been with. I can’t explain it, any more than I can explain to a cager why I take the risks of riding a motorcycle at all, versus just getting in the car. And, as I rode along last night, I decided to write this and share my thoughts.
So, here it is: I suggest that if you ever get the chance, take off your helmet and give it a try. If you’ve never done it, you might be surprised. And if you splatter your brains all over the highway, don’t blame me. It is, after all, just a suggestion. To paraphrase Robert A. Heinlein, “a zest for living requires a willingness to die.”
PS: I suspect my fun will end soon. I can’t imagine this society of ours allowing this type of individual choice for too much longer. Frankly, I was stunned when the law was repealed. I'm sure the Feds will link mandatory helmet laws to highway funding or something.