Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Fractured Reflection on Riding Gear

Motorcycling is a social practice. Even the lone rider half way to the end of all roads engages fully in the community of two wheels. The machine itself is a symbol and a syntax, a vocabulary put together by engineers and test riders, refined by the dialectic of development. To ride is to engage with human history, to fulfill the dreams of cats in lab coats who want a sequence of numbers and computer models to spawn a passion that they themselves could never quantify. Nishida. Araki. Higuchi. I have never met them. But they know me too well.

Yeah, rider and bike exist in a sphere of sociality, a clearing space of desires and justifications. We also stand before the law, a sometimes senseless and politically malleable set of regulations we are compelled to follow. However, social norms and personal inclinations override legal requirements all blood clot day. The rider who refuses to stop for police lights will rarely tell you that they did so because of a fear of the police. Something else is happening, there are motivations that run through the social fabric. Shared intentions, chances to prove some ideal of moto-worthiness. Find a rider who has never recounted his evasion from the police to another rider. That is a man with warrants. Everybody else is affirming a suspicion about themselves, declaring their realness.

Let me digress.

I yap about sociality because talk about moto safety rarely acknowledges the massive social forces outside of the MSF that contribute to moto rider skill and protective gear. It is easy to dismiss riders who don’t wear proper gear as crash dummy idiots of the highest order. That is, in fact, what I do most of the time. But the time has come for me to think more carefully on the topic.

Sportbikes come from the tradition of racing. Racing is governed by a ruling body, like the FIM or the AMA. It is no surprise that they require safety gear. Those who follow racing or are exposed to race imagery learn to associate aggressive riding with helmets and leather. So far, so good. But sportbikes are also bikes of great power and attractive styling. The great american birthright of mechanical masculinity and modification is easily attracted to these machines. Since they fulfill well worn standards of vanity and hypermasculine showmanship, sportbikes also engage a community of riders who don’t really know or care about racecraft. Their “chicken strips” are quite thick, but their bikes look damn good. These riders don’t really focus so much on safety gear; those voices don’t really penetrate the community.

My point is simply that there are basic social forces that emphasize or decry safety gear. Since new riders often fall in with a particular community of riders, these forces can be quite formative. And even when there is a requirement for safety gear, the motivation is not always rooted in the desire for safety itself. There are cats who have fallen in with my own moto squad who didn’t rock much gear at all, who got down on boots and jackets and all that essentially on the strength of peer pressure. It is not hard to imagine a world in which we didn’t rock gear and by extension the new members of our squad never came to rock it either. At the same time, there are also cats I have seen out on the street riding who are rocking fresh jackets, gloves and such, but whose nice helmets are strapped to the side of their bikes. I once saw a dude pull off to the side of the road and remove his helmet. He then strapped it down and rode up to the night spot; he wanted to be seen on his bike, you understand.

The man who takes off his helmet, or neglects to wear one at all when confronting public space is aligning himself to an ideal, an regulative image. It is difficult to be a rider and not take oneself as a particular kind of rider. It is one of the drawbacks of the motorcyclists appeal to authenticity. I am an outlaw. I am a stunta. I am a bad boy. Such a scene is reflected in the movies. Torque. Mission Impossible. Top Gun. The latest Star Trek. Orange County Choppers. The hero rides a bike, but he ain’t got no helmet.

This notion of image fulfillment is often accompanied by deeply misguided and internally inconsistent conceptions of freedom. According to some of these conceptions, state requirements to wear protective gear are unjustifiably paternalistic and constitute a restriction of freedom. Since the state should not be involved in “restricting” freedom, the very idea of wearing a helmet is offensive. This perspective, to borrow an expression from Dan Savage, is quite leotarded.

Pick someone at random from the masses and ask them what freedom is. You will get a hot mess of vague ideas. Because freedom, for most people, is a feeling and not a particular stance on an agent-centered state of being. It is a term used to oppose the ever encroaching threat of big government. Or to break free from an equally imaginary yoke of societal norms. (I say this because societal norms are not a yoke; they are the condition of the possibility of individuality in the first place. Not that you can ever become an individual or anything; I’m just sayin’.) Yeah. The usual use of freedom ends up meaning something like “prevention of me doing what I want to do, no matter how stupid it is.” I suppose we can distill this to a basic negative notion of freedom, which is the absence of constraint. There are some anarchists out there who take this notion to its for real conclusions. This involves a belief in no government at all. Not even a little bit. No police, no prisons, no taxes, no medicaid. But unhelmeted riders who push notions of freedom are underrepresented in this camp. Mostly they hail from a romantic perspective, a notion that things were awesome in some imaginary good old days when those ideals used to mean something, but which fell away when the liberals or conservatives or who ever fucked things up.

Ironically, the segment of riders who push this idea the hardest are also the segment where authentic notions of ridership are the least associated with helmets. I am speaking of course, about those who exclusively ride cruisers and choppers. Often I see such riders decked out with leather. Chaps and leather jackets. Gangster ass boots. Gloves. Protective gear that is revealed as image appeal when one factors the absence of helmet. Which is deeply troubling when one considers the new demographic who are purchasing these bikes, older men who are riding for the first time and have very little riding experience.

Anyway. I am just thinking out loud here. Let me wind down.

When I was in the hospital dealing with my moto crash injuries, all the medical professionals were surprised that I was only minimally hurt. Every nurse, doctor and x-ray technician asked me where the rest of my damage was. Why did I not have copious amounts of road rash? Why did I not have any head injuries? In talk with insurance reps and legal advisors, I heard tales about 10 mile an hour accidents that changed riders lives, that took them from professional life to professional care. On a recent ride, me and the homies happened upon a brigade of Harleys on the side of the road. It was clear that a rider blew the turn and crashed. He was lying motionless as his fellows clutched his head. There was no gear to be seen.

Gear doesn't make the difference in every possible mishap a rider can have. But it does in most of them. Riding is deeply worth it and deeply dangerous. You can turn the volume meter down from eleven by putting on some gear. For every old dude veteran rider who is cruising on his Gold Wing with no protection, there are 30 riders in the ground who could have walked away from the unforeseen dangers of the road if they had only judged passed their political ideology and community standards. I am not trying to be a "your life is too precious to risk" humanist or anything. I just think that people should exert more control over the possibilities of their own harm.

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