Head Case

AS A LONGTIME motorcyclist, I'd never ride without wearing a helmet. Other bikers, given a choice, would never wear one. In New York, helmet use is mandatory, but not elsewhere, though some states penalize helmetless riders in other ways.

The battle between hats and heads in motorcycling has been going on since Harley met Davidson. The argument, however, doesn't usually boil down to whether it's safer to wear a lid or not. Instead, it's usually about whether the law should require it of riders.

So, most advocacy groups, like the American Motorcyclist Association, while recommending riders use protective equipment, vehemently oppose state laws that requiring protective gear.

Such organizations present their opposition to helmet laws as part of a continuing battle for motorcyclists' rights. And, in fact, bikers have been the victims of overzealous and prejudiced law-enforcement agencies (such as when a motorcycle rally becomes an excuse for cops to stop riders en masse) and municipalities that ban motorcycles from certain roads or villages ­ as well as employer health plans that don't cover motorcyclists.

Still, why would folks who think it's common sense to wear a helmet decide it's bad government to force people to do so? Aren't they just defending the right for someone else to do crazy things at his own risk? "I may prefer to protect myself,'' goes the argument, ``but I don't want the government telling me I have to.'' But can you really speak of a right to choose if you think the only other choice is a poor one? Perhaps not as Americans hate being forced to do anything, even if it's the right thing.

Nor do other issues ­-- the economic cost of accidents, for instance ­-- make for enough compelling evidence to convince lid-bertarians: the evidence just isn't clear-cut enough. Or maybe folks are just stubborn. When you get down to it, we shellheads don't really care about the law either, I suppose. What bothers me is the appeal to a larger cause ­ of "freedom.'' Our right to enjoy our lives without government intervention is close to sacred ­ but isn't it doing such rights a disservice to attach them to dumb behavior?

To take a (very) extreme example: Before and during the Civil War, advocates of slavery often blunted opposition by making it an issue of ``states' rights.'' So an odious principle (slavery's validity) got piggybacked onto a perfectly respectable one (states' rights).

But apart from the dreadful consequence of the Civil War, a lasting effect of the South's loss was the devastation of the cause of states' rights ­ a cause which has never been the same since.

It's an extreme example. The point's the same, however: You may be able to use a better principle to leverage a dubious one, but be careful what you choose. Some are just more worth fighting for than others.