Backmarker: AMA Mission Creep

October 30, 2014
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

Mission Creepy: A Critical Look at AMA Policy

A couple of weeks ago, just as the 24-hour news cycle was ramping up Ebola hysteria, the AMA sent out an email, telling members that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t need more money to face challenges like Ebola and Enterovirus D68. (Read the full release in: AMA Cries Ebola in CDC Helmet Critique.)

According to the AMA, the CDC doesn’t need a bigger budget, it just needs to avoid “mission creep.” The CDC should stick to diseases, the AMA argued, and stop pushing for things that have nothing to do with disease, such as whether or not motorcyclists wear crash helmets.


Right. This was politicking at its sleaziest, from an organization—the American Motorcyclist Association—that is in theory politically independent. The AMA should be ashamed of itself for coming up with this idea at all.

The thing is, the AMA didn’t come up with it. But first…

Few people now remember that the CDC was originally created—and was based in Atlanta—because until the 1950s, malaria was endemic across much of southeastern United States. Know anyone who’s picked up a case of malaria here lately? Probably not, because the CDC eradicated it.

In 1960, the CDC took over responsibility for tuberculosis, and virtually eliminated that once-common disease, too. I guess that was when the mission creep started; when they took over the fight against tuberculosis.

I suppose you might say, “Yeah but those are both infectious diseases, a type of health problem that is categorically different than motorcycle injuries.” That’s true as far as it goes, but to medical professionals the word ‘disease’ has a very broad definition, often including injuries.

It’s not as if the sneaky, regulation-obsessed, freedom-hating CDC is secretively conspiring to broaden its reach, either. Its primary publication, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, has always studied trends in injuries as well as infectious diseases. And the CDC’s own website defines the organization’s role as “promoting health and safe behaviors” among other things.

So the question is: Why shouldn’t an organization devoted to promoting safe behaviors seek to increase crash helmet use by motorcyclists?

My question for the AMA is: Why don’t you?

I know what the AMA will say: Our official policy is that all motorcyclists should wear helmets.

Right. Those are your words. But let’s look at your actions, AMA. The cheap shot you took at the CDC, attempting to twist Ebola fears into an argument against crash helmet regulations was part of a much larger pattern.

If the steady stream of AMA press releases I get is any indication, the AMA’s primary regulatory focus is fighting mandatory crash helmet regulations in state legislatures.

I hope you won’t mind if I digress here for a moment. A few weeks ago, my wife, Mary, and I took a little vacation trip to the beach, in Florida.

In 2000, with lobbying help from the AMA, Florida repealed a universal helmet law. Now, in theory, Florida motorcyclists are only allowed to ride without helmets if they are over 21 and have $10,000 in medical insurance coverage.

In practice, Florida is a free-for-all as far as helmet use goes. The police virtually never institute stops for helmet-less riders to check their age or insurance. The result is that most of the riders I saw were helmet-less. (And incredibly, several of the sportbike riders I saw who were wearing helmets, were wearing proper full-face lids—perched right on the top of their heads, like a hat.) Many rigorous studies have confirmed the obvious, which is that when riders don’t wear crash helmets they die from head injuries in larger numbers.

The thing that drives me crazy about the AMA’s lame position on helmet use is that it’s so completely disingenuous.

Sure, they use the right words. “The AMA strongly encourages the use of personal protective equipment, including gloves, sturdy footwear and a properly fitted motorcycle helmet certified by its manufacturer to meet the DOT standard.”

But the AMA’s actions say different. The organization consistently joins the fight against new helmet laws, and for the repeal of existing laws.

The math on this is completely clear: States with universal helmet laws have almost universal helmet use; whereas, in states with voluntary helmet use, half the riders don’t wear them. Crash helmets are the single most important piece of safety equipment available to motorcyclists, and wearing one significantly reduces the risk of death in a motorcycle accident.

So inevitably every time the AMA ‘succeeds’ in its fight against a universal helmet law, or helps get a universal helmet law repealed, it is reducing the percentage of riders who wear helmets. By doing so, the AMA is actually in the business of killing motorcyclists.

Let that sink in for a moment.

I’ve written about this stuff before, and the responses are predictable. There’s a subset of readers who support me, and they write in to say something along the lines of, “That’s why I let my AMA membership lapse.”

More usually, I’m attacked by people who argue, “It’s a slippery slope; first they’ll mandate crash helmets, next it will be training wheels.” The other recurring theme, is, “It’s not about wearing helmets, it’s about freedom-of-choice,” (which is, to be fair, sort of a corollary of the slippery-slope argument).

I don’t buy the slippery slope, because there’s no evidence for it. California—a state the right wing loves to paint as regulation-obsessed—is a helmet state, but it’s also the only state that tolerates lane splitting. And throughout western Europe, governments that American helmet-haters would characterize as ‘socialist’ enforce universal helmet laws, but they also allow lane-splitting, often offer lower road tolls for motorcycles, and are more likely to have designated motorcycle parking in cities. So places with helmet laws seem to be more, not less, respectful of motorcyclists’ rights.

As for the broader freedom-of-choice issue, my personal feeling is, I’d be fine with the AMA recusing itself from lobbying about helmet laws pro or con. It can leave that assignment to single-issue organizations like ABATE.

That said, if the AMA really wants to improve things for serious motorcyclists, it can accept universal helmet laws in exchange for meaningful improvements to our lives as riders, such as the right to lane split.

The AMA routinely spouts practiced, mealy-mouthed claims that mandatory helmet laws are a distraction from a more important mission of encouraging improved driver training, motorcycle awareness, etc. But the truth’s different: every dollar it wastes lobbying for reduced helmet use—because make no mistake, that’s what they’re doing; they’re arguing for laws that will result in reduced use—every dollar wasted on those arguments is, in fact, a dollar that’s unavailable for driver education.

All of that 1300-word preamble was to explain my constant, low-level frustration with the AMA and, to get you to this point, why the AMA’s “Ebola” letter brought that frustration to a boil.

The fact that the AMA took the country’s fears about Ebola as an opportunity to get a kick in at the CDC is proof that the AMA’s adopted a radical stance in its efforts to politicize a helmet position that many of its members find repugnant.

For a few minutes I wondered who, amongst the wizards in Westerville, really thought that an Ebola panic would be a good time to attack the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?

Then, I pondered a more interesting question: Even though the decision to attack the CDC was sleazy politics, in poor taste, and likely not something most AMA members support, it was brilliant in a partisan, Machiavellian sense.

So who at the AMA, I wondered, thought it up? Then it hit me: No one. Maybe that idea didn’t come from the AMA.

It took little effort on Google to find several “CDC mission creep” headlines. An Oct. 3 article published on by columnist David Harsanyi cites the “mission creep” argument, four days before the AMA’s Ebola press release. Two days after the AMA PR a report written by FreedomWorks, a right-wing think tank with ties to David Koch (one of the multi-billionaire Koch brothers famous for their financial support of numerous conservative and libertarian political organizations), further championed the “mission creep” position. And the CDC’s “mission creep” has been a key talking point for conservatives throughout the month.

Capitalizing on the fear of the Ebola outbreak in Africa to push a flawed helmet agenda is distasteful. And it should be noted that, as of the date of this article, no one has died from contracting Ebola on American soil. The same cannot be said of helmet-less riders. But perhaps the more unsettling revelation from the AMA’s Ebola press release, is that an organization which claims to be “non-partisan” appears to be actively moving itself further and further to the right.