A HISTORY OF BIKERS RIGHTS IN AMERICA
As Seen By Bill Bish
NATIONAL COALITION OF MOTORCYCLISTS
About 30 years ago, bikers across America got sick and tired of being told by a bunch of Washington bureaucrats and local politicians who'd never thrown a leg over a motorcycle what they HAD TO WEAR, how they HAD TO RIDE, and what our BIKES HAD TO BE BUILT LIKE!! And over the years, motorcyclists have organized themselves into a viable political force. We are one of the few TRUE grass roots movements in the country. Others may share an avocation, profession or recreation, but they don't share the passion. Bikers have succeeded in taking their passion and turning it into a movement...a "Freedom Movement," because we have the passion for freedom. Freedom is something we believe in, and that motorcycling is just one very enjoyable way to experience it. Well folks, that passion will always be inside you, each of you, the Harley, Honda, Yamaha, BMW or Triumph rider, from the doctor to the construction worker. And that motorcycle will remain an outlet for that passion...as long as we continue to bypass the barriers of appearance or ego and work together to preserve our right to ride. And that's what our movement is all about...a diverse bunch of people, most of us staunch individualists, but with one common denominator and a common goal...Freedom Of The Road. The kind of camaraderie that brought the first two motorcycle riders together to share a ride down a country lane is the same kind of camaraderie that formed our early motorcycle clubs and associations and, eventually, our motorcycle rights organizations. Motorcycle Rights Organizations (MRO's) as we now know them started developing in the early 70's, after the first national helmet effort caused almost every state to pass mandatory lid laws. Since then motorcyclists have never been strangers to political activism. In fact, early motorcycle riders were among the first special interest groups to lobby for better roads. At the turn of the 20th Century as Indian footpaths and trails became rough and rutted dirt roads, motorcycles served as a primary form of transportation, and motorcyclists became vocal about improving the road conditions. Later, riders were among the first groups to push for an interstate highway system. YOU HAVE TO KNOW WHERE YOU'VE BEEN TO KNOW WHERE YOU'RE GOING! My name is Bill Bish, and I'm the former Executive Coordinator of the National Coalition of Motorcyclists and Aid to Injured Motorcyclists (AIM & NCOM), and have been active in bikers rights for over fifteen years. I have served in various state positions with ABATE of California, including two terms as Chairman of the Board and two terms as State Director. Sooo, for you history buffs, I'll try to piece together some of our early beginnings, with apologies to those who were there from the start. I wasn't, so this is only from my early conversations with people like Deacon Dave Phillips, Ron Roloff, Keith Ball, Sherm Packard and others who WERE there, as well as my own research and admittedly spotty memory. But, to help validate this version of Biker History, I ran the article by most of the people mentioned herein. Through NCOM and ABATE of California, I have traveled across the United States to preach unity and spread information, and I will always treasure my memories of the places that bikers' rights has taken me and the friendly faces that have greeted me. Because our issue is so emotional and deeply personal, I have developed close relationships with many Freedom Fighters throughout the country who I am proud to call Brothers and Sisters. It was this deep sense of "family" within the motorcycle rights community that inspired me to trace our Family Tree. Much has been said of the coming new millennium, and of the opportunities and pitfalls our future holds in store, but one thing is certain...YOU CAN'T KNOW WHERE YOU'RE GOING UNLESS YOU KNOW WHERE YOU'VE BEEN! With that thought in mind, I'd like to take you on a brief trip down memory lane, as we open up our Family Album and retrace our History as a bikers' rights movement here in the United States. Don't worry, there won't be a test, and hopefully this brief history lesson will be at least as interesting as your High School History classes!
Easyriders magazine editor Lou Kimzey issued a plea in issue #3, October 1971, for bikers to come together to fight impending restrictions from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) by joining a new national bikers' rights organization called the National Custom Cycle Association, but because of a conflict with the acronym the name was changed in February 1972 to A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments (ABATE). I recall Joe Teresi, publisher of Easyriders, telling me that they had a contest around the office to come up with a new name, and one of the secretaries came up with "ABATE". He told me they were on deadline and had to come up with a logo real fast, so they took a stylized German eagle and transformed it into the logo used by many ABATE's to this day. Keith Ball was just 22 when he became the original ABATE manager in 1971, and he later became editor of Easyriders and the National Director of ABATE. He recently retired from Easyriders as the Editorial Director and Executive Vice President of Paisano Publications and went into retirement, though he now operates an internet site called Bikernet.com which still focuses on bikers' rights. Easyriders began granting state charters in 1974, and ABATE's which came into existence around this time were chartered in Kansas, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and New York; and also MMA of California, MMA of Massachusetts, New Hampshire Motorcycle Rights Organization, Rhode Island Motorcycle Association, Connecticut Motorcycle Rights Association, and the Wisconsin Better Bikers Association. Easyriders published phone numbers, contacts and legislative news, and the bikers rights network began to grow. The Modified Motorcycle Association of California was founded at the same time as many ABATEs.
The original federal helmet mandates, which were instituted in 1966 by Congress and later repealed in 1976, were designed by the U.S. DOT (Department of Transportation) as a means to restrict modified or customized "choppers" which they deemed unsafe. Especially extended forks and apehangers which were popular. Deacon, founder of ABATE of California, once related to me that the 60's fad of ridiculously high sissy bars came about because the government started requiring "grab bars" for passenger safety, so the riders of the day flaunted the law by building them as long and garish as they could get by with. Almost every state during this time began passing handlebar height restrictions, eyewear requirements, motorcycle licensing requirements, lights-on laws and other equipment regulations and many other restrictions. The government claimed that the restriction against our "Freedom Machines" were coming down the pike to make motorcycle riding "safer". Funny, but back in the sixties they just wanted to force bikers off the streets. Publicly they tooted that they wanted to SAVE US from ourselves!
In most states, before motorcyclists became politically organized, the clubs were the first to fight helmet laws and other restrictions. In many instances clubs founded the states' motorcycle rights organizations. Before MMA or ABATE of California came into existence, the Hells Angels M/C and Ralph "Sonny" Barger in particular had succeeded in keeping the state of California helmet-free even though Congress had passed legislation in 1966 requiring every state to pass a helmet law or lose 10% of their federal highway funds, (this should sound familiar, since we just recently faced the same type of national helmet law in the nineties). Rumors still circulate around Sacramento about 1,000 Hells Angels on the Capitol lawn, and HA's camped out on the door steps of legislative opponents. Soon the old intimidation tactics wore thin and club leaders realized that they needed to legitimize their efforts by creating a more sophisticated political lobbying arm. In the case of California, the Hells Angels founded the MMA of California. Various states have similar history with local clubs which were the roots of their MRO.
About this same time, the American Motorcyclist Association began to recognize the motorcyclists rights movement and they established the AMA Government Relations Department, but not until 1976. As the rights movement grew, Don Pittsley, a member of the Huns M/C in Connecticut convinced his congressman, Rep Stewart Mckinney, to introduce H.R.3869 to end the Federal authority to withhold highway funds from states without helmet laws. In July of 1975, Rob Rasor of the AMA, Ron Roloff of MMA and Ed Armstrong of ABATE of Chicago presented the House Sub-Committee on Surface Transportation with convincing testimony to repeal the mandates. California was being sued by the DOT, because Governor Ronald Reagan refused to comply with the federal mandate. Roloff helped convince California Senator Alan Cranston to offer the language of the bill as an amendment to the 1975 Federal Highway Act, which passed with overwhelming support from the California delegation because of the impending lawsuit. It was signed by President Gerald Ford on May 5, 1976. Not bad for a rag tag bunch of bikers with little or no previous political ambitions.
Spurred on by many successful protest rallies around the country following the national helmet law repeal, 30 state laws were repealed. ABATE, MMA and other motorcycle rights organizations sprang up in every state across the country and are now a fixture in state houses. There were several failed attempts to start a national motorcycle rights organization, including Easyriders'. In 1985 the Motorcycle Rights Fund (MRF - later changing their name to Motorcycle Riders Foundation) hosted their first Meeting of the Minds conference, and a few months later, in 1986, the National Coalition of Motorcyclists (NCOM) held their first National Convention. Motorcycling leaders realized the need for a united voice and the necessity of networking and communications, and both the MRF and NCOM grew and have become effective partners with state MRO's in protecting riders' rights on the federal, state and local fronts.
The concept of unity was put to the test in the early 1990's, when Congress again attempted to force states into passing helmet laws, and American motorcyclists came together en masse, and in a coordinated effort between the MRF and NCOM virtually every state sent representatives from their State MRO to walk the hallowed halls of Washington, D.C., in search of their U.S. Senators and Representatives. The grand lobbying experiment WORKED, and in just FOUR YEARS bikers were able to convince Congress to once again repeal their misdirected and misguided "nanny" law and return the decision to the individual states. That same legislation also repealed the 55 mph minimum speed limit! Soon afterwards, Arkansas modified their mandatory helmet law to allow Freedom of Choice for adult riders 21 and older. Texas soon followed, as well as Kentucky, Louisiana and, most recently, Florida. Today, the scoreboard reads 20 Helmet Law States vs. 30 Free Choice States!
As a result of our newfound political clout, motorcyclists have successfully approached Congress twice over the past few years, first in 1996 to grant federal protections against insurance discrimination based on mode of transportation because many companies (most notably Ruger Firearms and the Teamsters Union) were denying medical benefits to employees injured in motorcycle accidents). Although this legislation was recently nullified by new federal regulations written in the waning days of the Clinton Administration, this nationwide effort was textbook politics at its best. The fight continues but the movement WILL succeed in reinstating the intent of Congress to protect us against insurance discrimination. Then, in 1998, motorcyclists united once again to put together a pro-active agenda for bikers, and succeeded in lobbying it through Congress. Included in this "wish list" for bikers was a guarantee that motorcyclists would be included during the development of the Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) technology, which ensures that motorcycles are guaranteed access to any and all roads built with the use of federal highway funds (no road bans). This effort will restrict anti-motorcycle lobbying efforts by NHTSA and provides $131 million for recreational trails development and maintenance!
During this active span of time, many state rights groups have become proactive within their states instead of RE-acting to legislative threats. Minnesota passed our nation's first law to make it illegal to discriminate against someone because they ride a motorcycle. Arizona, Iowa, Oregon and Washington have successfully repealed or modified their state's handlebar height laws. Virginia and Illinois have lobbied their states to reinforce the federally guaranteed access to roads by passing laws to protect our rights to ride on any roads within their state boundaries. Virginia and Maryland amended their state's parking laws to allow more than one bike per metered space. And several states have fought and defeated "No Fault" insurance proposals that are unfair to motorcyclists. Also, now, through the work of the National Coalition of Motorcyclists, patch holders in nearly 40 states and two Canadian Provinces have come together to form Confederations of Clubs to fight discrimination and police harassment through the courts, bringing the motorcycle rights network full circle with the rejuvenated interest of the motorcycle club community.
While our early bikers' rights leaders paved our way, other dynamic and concerned riders have come forward to take the reigns and lead us into the new millennium. We should never forget the efforts and sacrifices of our predecessors who faced intimidation from law enforcement, indifference from legislators and animosity from a public that saw "The Wild One" one too many times. They got the job done. Were it not for their perseverance and dedication, we would not have become the respected and effective grass roots lobbying group that we are today.
So, there you have it. The roots of ABATE and the American motorcyclists' rights movement run deep in the hearts of those of us who have accepted and, in turn, passed on the torch of Freedom of the Road. To all those who came before, we salute you. Where will the future take us? That's entirely up to you. New restrictions on our freedom and our motorcycles are coming at us now from across the big pond If we don't increase our political strength, we may be looking at the last days of motorcycling as we know it. W need to protect the future of motorcycling against the upcoming European invasion! The biggest threat facing motorcyclists today is not necessarily from our own Government. It may very well be the EUROPEAN THREAT, as the strictest motor vehicle standards in the world are adopted as global standards. On June 25, 1998, the global motorcycle came closer to reality, as the United States, Japan and the 15 member countries of the European Union (EU) signed an agreement in Geneva, under the auspices of the United Nations, to develop global regulations concerning the safety performance of motor vehicles and equipment. So, the UNIVERSAL motorcycle is on it's way. The automotive and motorcycle industries have long advocated global uniformity of standards, because conflicting standards mean expensive design changes for each market. Unfortunately for motorcyclists, this means that European threats such as leg protectors, air bags, noise limits, horsepower restrictions and anti-tampering measures, will now become global issues. There are 300,000 new bikes sold in the USA each year, and 1,000,000 new bikes sold in Europe. Which standards do you think will apply? Construction standards could ban: Air-cooled engines, open chain drives, 2-stroke motors, self-tuning and customizing. Regulations will include Catalytic Converters to reduce emissions, along with reducing power and increasing fuel consumption, while driving up the cost of motorcycles. Medium/Long Term Threats in Europe include the following: Vintage/classics banished to museums, due to End-of-Life issues Construction standards mandated Using "Anti-Tampering" Sheer Bolts to prevent home maintenance and performance work. Armored, high visibility clothing. Bike bans on certain roads, in certain tourist areas and when pollution levels rise. Massive road tax increases and heavy-handed taxes on motorcycles. Multi-stage (tiered) licensing to ride a motorcycle, and very expensive. Yes, and research continues, even today, on leg protectors and air bags! Vision Zero: There's no such thing as an "accident" with today's technologically advanced vehicles. BUT motorcycles will always be subject to human errorŠtherefore they would be BANNED under this proposed Swedish plan which almost became official policy! Intelligent Transportation System: Basically, the purpose of ITS is to use technology to achieve a more efficient flow of traffic. But while the goal is safer, quicker travel, ultimately ITS technology will eliminate human error by taking control of the vehicle away from the driver. NHTSA promises active public participation in the development of the new global motor vehicle safety standards, with public meetings and comment periods as the plan is implemented, and Congress has promised that motorcycles will be included in any future ITS developments. Motorcyclists will have to ensure that our collective voice is heard during the planning stages. So, if we want to continue to ride free, we must spread the word to other concerned riders, to our youth, and to our legislators. Join a motorcycle rights group and support their efforts. Freedom will never die. --Bill Bish