It should be understood that, no matter what one’s personal choice concerning helmet use is, the motorcycle rights movement originally began as a natural reaction to helmet laws.
The First National Helmet Law was passed in 1966 under the Federal Highway Act, which included withholding of highway construction funds for any state which did not enact motorcycle helmet use and licensing requirement laws. At that time, there was really no such thing as “motorcycle rights” and, between 1967 and 1970, almost every state that didn’t already have full coverage laws passed one, with Georgia, and then Missouri, taking the lead. The exceptions were California and Illinois. (Note: Illinois actually passed a helmet law, but it was repealed six months later on constitutional grounds; California eventually went to a fifteen and under law.)
In these early years, the methods to fight helmet laws were often considered radical by outsiders. Protest rides were held and helmets were smashed or burned on state capitol steps. These protest methods were not particularly effective for riders in most states, with the possible exceptions of California and Wisconsin.
It was during this time period that the motorcycle rights movement was “born” in California with the Modified Motorcycle Association (MMA) forming in about 1970. Then, in 1971, the Editor of Easyriders Magazine, Lou Kimsey, had the idea for a national motorcycle rights organization (MRO) and organized the first ABATE (A Brother Against Totalitarian Enactments). It was out of this organization that many state MRO’s began to form. Logistically, the national ABATE didn’t quite work and, eventually, autonomy was turned over to the state organizations. Among those early organizations (in about 1974) were ABATE(s) of Kansas, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, New York, the MMAs of California and Massachusetts, the New Hampshire M/C Rights Org., Rhode Island M/C Assoc., Connecticut M/C Assoc., and the Wisconsin Better Bikers Assoc. It was also around this same time period that the AMA began to realize the importance of motorcycle rights and became involved in the movement.
In 1976, after intense lobbying efforts by these early pioneers, the First National Helmet Law was overturned. As a result, between 1975 and 1977 roughly half the states amended their laws to give adults the freedom of choice. Iowa, Colorado and Connecticut totally repealed their helmet laws, regardless of rider age, but Connecticut would go on to reinstate a helmet law requirement for minors, leaving Iowa, Colorado and Illinois as the only three truly free states. Wyoming was the last to repeal their adult law, in 1983, and things got quiet for awhile, but the calm didn’t last. Helmet law proponents came back with a vengeance and, between 1982 and 1988, several states had re-enacted helmet laws.
Meanwhile, in 1984, a group of ABATE of Illinois members were sitting in a garage discussing the need to get activists from all over the country together. As a result of this discussion, the first Meeting of the Minds was held in 1985 at St. Louis, Missouri. It was very informal by today’s standards, but it did accomplish its goal of bring leaders of state motorcycle rights organizations to the table. A steering committee (the forerunner of the present Board of Directions) for the Motorcycle Riders Foundation (MRF) was formed. Members of that original committee included: Michael “Balls” Farabaugh (president), Bill Gannon, Lee Richardson, Dan Boyd, Howard Segermark, Jim Rhoades, Clay Johnson, Bill Durning, Nancy Lewis, Linda Stewart, H.E. “Sundance” Mitchell and Rob Rasor. Fred Harrell and Wayne Curtin joined them in 1988.
By 1987, the steering committee had recognized the importance of full time representation in the nation’s capitol. In 1988, Wayne Curtin was hired as the MRF’s first full time lobbyist and the MRF opened for business in D.C. In 1989, the MRF became a membership-based organization – SMROs, as well as individuals, support the MRF through membership.
In 1991, the Second National Helmet Law was enacted as part of ISTEA. The MRF, AMA and the SMROs converged on Washington, D.C. and, in 1995, those efforts landed repeal of the helmet law provisions of the legislation, but not before it took its toll.
So there you have it – the evolution of motorcycle rights. Early state organizations communicated by mail, phone, and meeting – every state was on the mailing list of every other state, so anyone who read one newsletter got news from all over the country. Individuals in the various states began to realize they were not alone and, because they were all working for the same goals, began to think they were a political power. As they thought, so they became; each successful lobbying effort made them stronger and they became more confident and determined than ever.
They built organizations and membership at both the state and the national levels. They began to attend national and regional conferences hosted by organizations such as the MRF. They learned – then they began to teach. They began educating their members, the legislators and the public. The shift toward education had begun; some MROs began to change their names to “A Brotherhood Active Toward Education”, or something similar.
The spirit of the old acronym “A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments” remains. We have merely changed the way we do business in our efforts to become more effective. We continue to evolve – and this “kinder/gentler” side is proving its worth as we continue forward (farther than many of us ever imagined we could) since the great victory of 1995 (Helmet Repeal – A Done Deal!)
Helmet laws are no longer our only, or even our main, priority. MROs have successfully fought, and continue to fight, insurance discrimination, road and noise bans and negative language in the Gang Control Act. In 1996, motorcyclists lobbied for health care legislation to include language which would prohibit denial of coverage and benefits for injuries suffered in motorcycle accidents. (Note: The final regulations, issued five years later, would overturn this intent. So the fight continues.) In 1997 and 1998, motorcyclists worked with the government on TEA 21, ensuring motorcycles would be more fully integrated into transportation planning, limited NHTSA’s lobbying power and made accident prevention a priority after years of dealing with an injury reduction methodology that assumed the accident was unavoidable.
We conduct motorcycle safety courses, educate legislators, the public and our members, fight unfair lobbying practices and work with other nations to ensure the safety of our chosen method of transportation as global harmonization materializes. We are a recognized political power!