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AMA Talks Motorcycle Helmets & Education

Wednesday, February 11, 2009
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For the past 21 months, American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) President and CEO Rob Dingman has been leading the world's largest motorcyclists' rights organization through a reorganization to rededicate the AMA to its core mission: protecting and promoting the future of motorcycling and the motorcycle lifestyle.

In this third in a three-part series of interviews, conducted by AmericanMotorcyclist.com, the website of the AMA, Dingman discusses the Association's comprehensive approach to rider safety, helmet laws and rider education.

AM: The AMA does many things for its members. It sanctions amateur racing, provides discounted services and products, and lobbies for motorcycling interests. Yet, many in the motorcycling community seem to hold onto misconceptions about what the AMA stands for. How do you respond?

RD: We stand for choice, and we accept the responsibility that comes with making choices. This attitude, I might add, is very prevalent among motorcyclists, both on- and off-highway, whether they are AMA members or not.

The AMA, and our sister organization the ATVA (All-Terrain Vehicle Association), advocate for personal responsibility on the part of all motorcyclists and OHV (off-highway vehicle) riders. Not surprisingly, the typical AMA or ATVA member describes himself or herself as someone who rides and acts responsibly. They don't want unnecessary regulation, preferring instead to make educated, responsible choices about the motorcycles they ride, the riding gear they wear, and the places where they ride. For that reason, the AMA and the ATVA do not support mandates. Mandates often result in unintended consequences for the people who are most affected by them.

AM: The AMA talks about a comprehensive approach to motorcycle safety. What does that really mean?

RD: That's a good question, and one that many people ask. A truly comprehensive approach to rider safety includes training, licensing, proper gear and riding unimpaired. All of these components contribute significantly to the safety of riders.

AM: How does the AMA's philosophy of choice factor into its position on mandatory helmet laws? And how do you respond to some people who say that the AMA is "anti-helmet?"

RD: I simply say that it's not true. The AMA strongly encourages everyone to wear a properly fitted motorcycle helmet that is certified by its manufacturer to meet the DOT standard. However, we also believe that appropriate gear should remain a personal choice for adults, and not something mandated by law. The AMA does not oppose mandatory helmet laws for minors. But again, once a person reaches adulthood, the decision to choose whatever gear he or she feels is appropriate should not be mandated by the government.

AM: So why does AMA oppose helmet mandates? Where's the harm?

RD: Because mandates have unintended consequences. Proponents of mandatory helmet laws see these laws as a cure-all for motorcycle injuries and fatalities, when in fact they do nothing to prevent crashes from occurring in the first place. We want to prevent crashes, rather than simply deal with their consequences.

Let's face it, almost any motorcycle crash is going to expose the rider to far more harm than the driver of an automobile. And the fact of the matter is that there are much smarter ways to prevent motorcycle injuries and fatalities, such as rider education, riding unimpaired and driver-awareness programs that include modules within existing driver education courses alerting drivers to the presence of motorcycles in the traffic mix.

The AMA and its members battle every year at the federal and state level to protect funding for rider education and driver awareness. When mandatory helmet laws are passed, safety officials tend to think "problem solved," and they pass the burden of an unfunded mandate to the enforcement community. Once that happens, funding for preventive strategies like rider education and driver awareness is often shelved. This makes the problem worse for riders, not better.

AM: Are there any other examples of mandates that the AMA opposes?

RD: Yes, we oppose mandatory rider training. Some states have gone so far as to mandate rider education, but we don't agree with this strategy. While on the surface this argument may have a nice ring to it, the reality is that every state program is currently stretched to the breaking point just trying to meet the needs of motorcyclists who seek training. When states pass these unfunded mandates, they force riders to wait many more months for training.

One unintended consequence is that some riders will then forego training altogether and risk riding unlicensed, which is nearly impossible for law enforcement to monitor. And unlicensed riders are already overrepresented in crash and fatality statistics.

As an alternative to mandatory rider training, we believe that greater funding of existing programs, improved training reciprocity between states, and other incentives -- for example, insurance discounts -- would result in more riders completing rider training courses.

On top of that, riding instructors are hard to find, train and keep. These people are enthusiasts who want to give something back to motorcycling, and often they are not well-paid. When you force students who don't want to be there into the classroom, the instructor corps becomes disenchanted and dwindles rapidly at the very time that more of them are needed.

AM: What message does the AMA want to deliver to a beginning rider who is unfamiliar with these issues?

RD: If I could stress one thing about motorcycling to a novice rider, it would be this: take responsibility for how you ride. That means get trained, get licensed, wear protective gear, including a helmet, ride unimpaired, run a quiet exhaust, observe the rules of the road, and ride, ride ride! When you do these things, motorcycling is a lot of fun. And remember to join the AMA -- because we make sure your right to ride is protected.

This is the last of the three-part series, "Threats to motorcycling in America, conversations with the AMA's Rob Dingman." To read all three parts, including Dingman's answers to questions about public land access and excessive sound, go to www.AmericanMotoryclist.com

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Daniel Croft -@ Mechtech - But were does it stop?  February 12, 2009 12:53 PM
It stops where there's no scientific proof that the mandates actually improve rider safety in a measurable way. Helmets are a proven way to reduce fatalities. You can imagine that doing nothing will result in your freedom of choice but, as we're seeing recently, this is merely delay. In the long run, doing nothing but protecting the right to choose results in all choices being taken away by people that really don't understand. Daniel
Mechtech -But were does it stop?  February 12, 2009 09:31 AM
Maybe the AMA has learned from the NRA. Because 'reasonable' mandates and regulations never stop. So make helmets mandatory (which ones DOT beanies or full face) Then mandatory riding gear, jackets/pants, full armored custom fit racing suits. Where does it end. As the NRA found out it doesn't end, there's always 'one more reasonable' mandate needed. Pretty soon you end up banned and vilified and motorcycling would face it worse because there's no constitutional right to motorcycles to overcome. So yes I oppose mandates and regulations and support training and responsibility on the individuals part.
JSH -AMA  February 12, 2009 05:37 AM
This is why I left the AMA about 10 years ago. The say they are protecting motorcyclists rights but then oppose reasonable regulations that would improve rider safety and protect our rights from an increasingly hostile public. The AMA recommends we wear a helmet and proper riding gear but opposes regulation that requires it. The AMA recommends we get rider training but opposes regulation that requires it. The AMA recommends that we start with small bikes and progress to larger and more powerful bike but opposes regulation to requires this. The AMA recommends that we respect our neighbors by riding with legal exhausts but opposes regulation that give officers tools to enforce noise ordinances. The AMA is still a reactive organization that focuses on fighting land closures and noise laws but ignores the cause of this public anger against motorcyclists. They have the same close-minded attitude as the NRA; "If we give in to any level of reasonable regulation or licensing they will take away our guns/motorcycles."
Tim B -It Makes No Sense  February 12, 2009 12:15 AM
"And the fact of the matter is that there are much smarter ways to prevent motorcycle injuries and fatalities..." A great place to start is wearing a helmet! Time and time again it is PROVEN that helmets save lives. How the AMA can act like wearing a helmet isn't such a big deal is beyond me.
Daniel Croft -Hypocritical AMA  February 11, 2009 10:16 PM
The AMA supports safety and training by fighting for the prevention of the introduction of laws that have shown (please refer to Florida helmet laws) to be beneficial over all. They support the current licensing model in the USA which says that any rider with a learner's permit (a simple, very easy test is all you need) can buy any motorcycle they want. Hyabusa, 1198, 700lb cruiser - these are poor beginner bikes to say the least but bikes that the AMA would have riders make an educated choice about but then don't have any structure in place to educate the wider community other than self service. They expect that a self service model will suffice for people that don't know there's a service available. Many other countries have implemented a graduated license system for motorcyclists that includes some element of training, at least in terms of seat time on more manageable motorcycles. The AMA is not in favor of this, they're in favor of the status quo. Even in cases where a rider is aware of the issues, they make poor choices due to peer pressure and what looks cool. Many riders wear DOT helmets that barely cover the crown of their heads, what protection would these helmets offer? Has the AMA attempted to address this issue with the DOT? The pro choice mantra of the AMA sounds nice for the people that have enough awareness to make the choice or even know about the AMA for that matter so it sells but it's not a policy that serves the wider community. Many people that support these polices don't do so out of an understanding of the issues but a blind devotion of the rightness of choice. As a former member of the AMA and a motorcycle rider, I find it depressing that the AMA can have such a myopic view of safety and training that would dictate that they advocate only for choice and not of providing direction in cases where sufficient knowledge in the wider community is not present. I personally advocate training at all levels. I believe a graduated license structure would serve to better educate American motorcyclists and furnish them with the information to make choices. Helmets, like other safety devices used in cars (air bags, seat belts) should be mandated due to their *proven* ability to reduce injuries. Rider training should be more in depth and a graduated system would allow people to choose to what level they wish to be trained. My conversations with the AMA via email regarding these issues were initially answered but then ignored by the AMA who are meant to represent me and reflect my concerns. It was shortly after this that I ceased being a member of the AMA. The AMA serves the community but doesn't encourage the growth or help direct the community away from it's limitations. The AMA does not represent me, the AMA represents only those who think that the information and beliefs that they currently have are right and beyond question. At some point the wider American community will become aware of these issues and implement laws that restrict our rights without consultation. This is already happening (Florida wheelie laws, proposed noise legislation in NYC, Denver & NH, etc). The AMA appears after the fact to try to band aid the issue but doesn't then proactively address the other issues that many in the motorcycling community *know* will become a problem down the road because the AMA believes in choice over everything. Daniel