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Conflicted on Helmets

March 3, 2009

Conflicted on Helmets

Determined bikers seek overturn of new MB law

To the many local folks who detest the May motorcycle rallies, Saturday’s organized biker defiance of the new Myrtle Beach helmet ordinance probably looked like puerile acting out. That no doubt was the case with some of the bikers who participated in this demonstration of civil disobedience. 

But many of the other participants in the Helmet Freedom Ride had a more positive – and clever – motive: garnering a police ticket as the starting point for a lawsuit challenging the ordinance. Their rationale – which just might work – is to exploit what some see as an inherent conflict between the helmet ordinance and the state law allowing motorcyclists 21 and older to ride helmet-free.

In crafting the ordinance last year, the City Council carefully applied its home-rule power to delineate the absence of a qualifying helmet on the heads of motorcycle drivers and passengers as a noncriminal administrative-code violation. After much research into the matter, the city’s legal staff told the council that state law doesn’t speak to administrative violations.

But as thoughtful bikers were the first to realize, this is just the city legal staff’s opinion. Only the courts can say for sure whether the city has home-rule authority to promulgate an administrative code that includes a helmet requirement for those who drive or ride on motorcycles and other two-wheel powered vehicles. The courts well might shoot down the city’s rationale.

To float this this alternative theory for judicial consideration, however, there must first be a “victim” of the helmet ordinance with the motivation and means to challenge his ticket – and the ordinance responsible for it – in court. The bikers who were ticketed Saturday are now in position to mount such a challenge.

Riding this road to and through the courts won’t be easy. As part of its ordinances-based crackdown on the May motorcycle rallies, the city last year raised property taxes by about $1 million. Council members planned, going in, on using part of that money to fend off lawsuits brought by bikers or the organizations that represent them.

So unless they can find lawyers willing to represent them pro bono, the bikers who provoked the police into ticketing them last weekend will need financial backing to propel their case through a trial to the state appellate courts. That could run into real money.

Small wonder it sticks in the craw of many motorcycle enthusiasts that the city’s anti-rally cash kitty was raised on the backs of city taxpayers – some of them motorcycle enthusiasts who object to the council’s quest to end the rallies. This makes their determination to challenge the ordinance admirable.

Full disclosure: The newspaper editorial board supports helmet laws as a matter of safety and wishes the legislature would pass one. Even some of the bikers interviewed for the newspaper’s weekend stories have nothing against helmets. One interviewee even said helmet wear had saved him from injuries – twice.

Their objection is to being told they must wear helmets while riding in Myrtle Beach. We disagree with their view that government lacks the power to prescribe such a safety measure. But we defend their right to advance that view in court – and to indulge in civil disobedience to get there.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 3, 2009 3:29 pm

    Nice stuff, this is good information.

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