Family Squabbles

From the Hartford Courant (June 15, 2003)

The American Motorcyclist Association has long been the premier organization dedicated to preserving riders' rights and ensuring motorcyclists can enjoy their two-wheeled pastime unimpeded and free from harassment. It has fought, and won, significant battles.

But in the 21st century, more than a few have come to wonder whether the organization is showing signs of fraying. Does the AMA represent the interest of riders, and only riders, or is it more beholden to manufacturers? Can one organization possibly serve the diverse needs of streetbike riders, off-road enthusiasts, dealers and makers of motorcycles -- not to mention professional racers and other go-fast entrepeneurs?

Motorcycle manufacturers and dealers have traditonally sought to underplay their influence, but historically they were the motive forces behind the associations which preceded the AMA -- which started as an offshoot of a manufacturers' trade association back in the 1920s.

Two things have happened in recent years: the sophistication and influence of its governmental wing has increased, and the division of the AMA which governs professional racing in the U.S. has struggled to accommodate rapid growth, particularly in motocross events -- cross-country races for lightweight bikes over hilly terrain, staged outsdoors or in big indoor arenas.

You won't find a motorcyclist who doesn't favor a vigorous pursuit of access rights. But for the efforts of the AMA, countless municipalities might have banned bikes from certain roads. Freedom from arbitrary harassment from police and unfavorable treatment from insurance companies are of concern to every biker. For off-road riders, the AMA battles on behalf of access to public lands while encouraging its members to respect local noise ordinances.

At the same time, many AMA members (and former members) point out that the influence of the big motorcycle manufacturers determine most of the major policy directions.

About six years ago, subscribers to the AMA's magazine, American Motorcyclist, were greeted by extensive coverage of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) in a special issue. Much as it made sense for the manufacturers of these off-road vehicles -- primarily the big Japanese motorcycle factories -- to use the AMA's marketing and legislative muscle, some members were puzzled that the AMA's mission had been expanded to include the four-wheeled off-road vehicles (said one, "What's next -- snowmobiles?")

AMA Public Information Director Tom Lindsay cites regulatory issues as justification for the inclusion of ATVs.

"The people who seek to regulate ATV use are the same people... who seek to regulate motorcycles," he said. "The entire motorcycle community -- scooters, on and off-road motorcylists, ATVers -- benefits from our experience with the issues as a whole."

Before the 2000 election, American Motorcyclist dedicated its editorial page to a comparison between candidates Bush and Gore, based on their anticipated responses to motorcycle-related issues -- in this case, primarily off-road access to public lands. Reasoning that Gore would continue the Clinton administration's efforts to prohibit riding on national forestland -- which the AMA had bitterly fought, referring to the initiative sarcastically as "Wilderness Lite" -- the editorial took the unprecedented step of all but endorsing Bush.

Lindsay says "no one resigned" as a result of the AMA's position on the 2000 election. But that the AMA would risk alienating members by recommending a presidential candidate suggests that bolstering membership rolls is not a primary objective. And the shrinking membership is cause for concern. In 1997, there were 19 million riders -- meaning that just over 1 percent of riders were members of the AMA.

The AMA took issue with this story. Here was my followup to their response:

June 18, 2003

Tom Lindsay
Public Information Director
American Motorcyclist Association

Dear Tom,

I stand by my story in the Courant.

1) With regard to membership numbers, here's exactly what happened: you'll recall I asked if you could give me membership numbers over the past 10 or 20 years, and you said you could not. You said current membership is 264,751.

Just how forthcoming were you? Since you wouldn't give me the membership numbers year-by-year, I asked how the present number compared with the peak. You said that you couldn't give me an exact number but that it was "within a couple thousand" of the highest membership year.

I might have left it there, except further research turned up the August, 2000 total of 270,484. That may not be the peak number, but let's say it was. The difference between that and the present number is 5,733. 5,733 is a difference that might be described as "several" thousand. It is certainly not a "couple" thousand, as you stated.

Under the circumstances, to describe your response as "[not] exactly forthcoming" was actually charitable, wouldn't you agree?

2) I should have caught the error about the number of total motorcyclists in 1997. Unfortunately I was misled by a hashed reference in a Motorcycle Safety Foundation document which misquoted the MIC study. While I didn't originate the mistake, I should have seen it.

Hope that settles some of the problems that the AMA had with my story. Far from being "shameless," I take pride in my accuracy and skill and adherence to the facts, and likewise in having never retracted a single word I've written in over twenty years of writing for scores of magazines and newspapers for a living. But why not also post the original story in full, as well as this reply in full, and let the public and AMA members decide?


Ray Tennenbaum 

The AMA isn't exactly forthcoming with past membership statistics, but research indicates that current membership is at 264,751, down substantially from the August 2000 total of 270,484 -- before which membership had been generally increasing.

There have been a few indications of organizational dysfunction in recent years, including a costly lawsuit against a promoter and an AMA president who resigned after falsely claiming in an article in American Motorcyclist that he had served in Vietnam. And of course, as in every motor sport, disputes over sanctions and rules are never-ending.

Is there a problem with the AMA? If there is, maybe it's not so much the organization, but the disparate interests of motorcyclists. To many riders, the combined threat of environmentalists, government safetycrats, and millions of motorists who treat motorcyclists with indiffierence or criminal neglect, is ominous enough to warrant extreme measures. But some motorcycle enthusiasts prefer to choose their battles carefully, and resent the AMA's siege mentality.

Riders who don't mind helmets, for example, would rather leave the helmet-law opposition to local groups. Leaving ATV advocacy and news for another organization might better suit motorcyclists who feel they don't belong in the same organization with four-wheeled vehicles.

Some observers caution that developments in the automotive industry may jeopardize the AMA's dedication to motorcycles. Over the next decade or two, global positioning system devices and sensors may limit auto driver operator involvement. In such a world -- approaching the futuristic vision of the film A.I., in which autos are simply moved along, with no driver taking the wheel -- the feasibility of motorcycles would be significantly challenged. That may seem like fantasy, but with manufacturers like Honda and BMW staked heavily in the automotible business, a motorcyclist with even the mildest of persecution complexes could be forgiven for wondering how loyal his motorcycle manufacturer is to him.