By Allen Young
Nine miles outside of Boulder Creek, California, Big Basin State Park is a somewhat hidden campground and day-hiking area with giant redwoods and green ferns running along the hedges of California Highway 236, the single road that runs through the park.
On Aug 28, 2005, at 4:30p.m., Park Ranger Gary Brennan was talking to another ranger outside park headquarters when a skinny man with a long salt-and-pepper beard roared up to the main parking lot and cut the engine of his Harley Davidson. The rider was not wearing a helmet.
Brennan approached the man and identified himself as a state park officer. He asked the gaunt biker if he had a justifiable reason for neglecting to strap on the mandatory headgear. To Brennan’s surprise, the cyclist did. In fact, he had an entire philosophy, and proceeded to deliver a well-rehearsed spiel on the intrinsic corruption of the California mandatory motorcycle helmet law. After a lengthy discussion, Brennan remained unconvinced, and wrote the man a ticket for helmet violation on a state highway.
July 6, 2006, nearly a year since their encounter, Richard Quigley, the 63-year old biker, sat quietly at the defendant’s table of the Watsonville Superior Court, staring at Brennan and preparing a cross-examination to the peace officer’s testimony. Judge Michael Barton invited Brennan up to the stand to explain why he felt justified in writing Mr. Quigley a ticket.
There was, of course, the California motorcycle helmet law, which had been in effect for 14 years. But nine days before Brennan’s testimony, Judge Barton had thrown out nine of Quigley’s 11 pending helmet tickets, calling them “unconstitutional”, “unenforceable”, and thereby void. In the order, Barton wrote “The CHP is the only State agency authorized by the statutes to adopt reasonable regulations establishing specifications and standards for motorcycle safety helmets.” Over numerous court appearances and countless documents, Richard Quigley had successfully convinced Judge Barton that the CHP had no transparent guidelines on what makes a helmet a helmet. There was a scientific standard, but police officers don’t receive training on how to indisputably follow that standard. Therefore, a “legal motorcycle helmet” could be anything from a full-faced carbon headgear safety device to, say, a plastic bucket, or a yarmulke.
Richard Quigley liked to wear a yarmulke. Not a real yarmulke, but a small plastic yarmulkesque disk with a chinstrap. Sometimes Quigley wore an old faded baseball cap as his helmet. And sometimes, like the day he was cited by officer Brennan, he wore nothing at all.
But Barton’s July 6 condemning order didn’t rock the California motorcycle helmet law, it didn’t rock helmet legislation, and it didn’t rock the CHP. In fact, it didn’t really rock anything.
Two days later, the Santa Cruz Sentinel ran a front-page story with the headline CHP: Riders without helmets will get tickets. It was business as usual for the Highway Patrol, representatives said they would continue to ticket bareheaded riders in the same manner they had been for years.
This is why Brennan’s testimony to Quigley’s tenth ticket was so critical.
Would the CHP arrive with new evidence to back up Brennan’s decision? Quigley’s 14-year battle against the California mandatory motorcycle helmet law looked to be all but over. The opposition had all the evidence they needed; now it was time to see who would win the war. Would an outlaw motorcyclist backed by a traffic appeals judge in the small coastal town of Watsonville, California, overturn a major California law? This question, this obsession, may have been the force keeping the dying biker alive (For a comprehensive story on the life of Richard Quigley, check out the 2007 edition of Primer, CHP vol. 42, Issue 1, available now).
Richard Quigley’s mind circled around this strange game. And the game â€“ one he had dedicated the remainder of his life to playing â€“ looked to be coming to a close. And just in time. Staring at Brennan, Quigley made no effort to hide the large gauze bandage wrapped across the left side of his head. Beneath the bandage was a tumor the size of a silver dollar. For two weeks Quigley had tried to get into the hospital to have the red lump removed before the trial, but to no avail.
In August 2005, doctors diagnosed Richard Quigley with stage-four terminal lymphoma. They gave him five months to live. For a year he had grappled with the growing cancer, ignored his degenerating health, converted the pain into anger, and channeled his anger into fighting the helmet law. He admitted that his fixation with the fight had given his life new meaning, and even with the cancer now bubbled-up on the side of his face, he was not about to let everything fall apart.
“Okay.” It was finally Quigley’s turn to speak. His normal jagged voice sounded especially scraggly, like an old trustworthy engine being fired up for the first time in months.
“I asked for a copy of Parks Department policy relating to enforcement of vehicle section 27803B.”
“We have none,” Brennan said.
“You have no specific policy for that statute?” Quigley asked.
“We have no specific policy for enforcing helmet rules,” Brennan admitted.
Gary Brennan remained frozen, staring at a single point somewhere in the courtroom. Perhaps on that fateful day at Big Basin Park, Brennan had not been aware that the bareheaded biker who had fervently argued for the freedom to let his long gray hair flap in the wind happened to be the most resilient fighter of the California helmet law in its 15-year history. That day, Judge Barton signed off Quigley’s last pending helmet ticket at Big Basin Park as a correctable violation. That order came out over a year ago; the CHP has yet to appeal the decision, yet across the state they still continue to write motorcyclists tickets for helmet violations.
In 1967, Congress passed a law making highway funds contingent on the enactment of motorcycle helmet laws. For almost a decade, California was the lone rebel state that refused to pass a law. In 1976, after Congress repealed the legislation, 27 states repealed their helmet laws or limited coverage to minors.
The country was split on helmet enforcement.
In December 1991, Congress took notice of DMV-reported motorcycle-related deaths. California had 512 that year. Once again, federal highway funds became attached to helmet laws, and select states began to reinstate their laws. Later that year, Democrat Assemblyman Richard Floyd of Southeast Los Angeles delivered an impassioned plea to Congress to pass a helmet law, claiming that head-injured motorcyclists were causing California taxpayers $65 to $100 million per year. His argument mopped the senate floor. In January 1992, then-Governor Pete Wilson signed Floyd’s bill, enacting the first California helmet law. Shortly thereafter, an investigation by state traffic safety agencies placed the actual annual taxpayer figure at $1.5 million. The San Jose Mercury News examined the mishap in an article titled Helmet bill rode bad data to win.
“Who gives a fuck?” Floyd asked a Mercury reporter, later confessing that he improvised his numbers in order to get his bill signed.
“Bottom line is, I don’t give a rat’s ass about any of the figures,” said Floyd to Channel 7 Los Angeles Eyewitness News. “It is the law of the state of California. Wear the hat, or go to jail.” Floyd spoke with confidence, he had already sealed his victory—bareheaded riders had already begun receiving tickets. Any discrepancies at that point were left in the dust.
The California death toll in 1992 dropped from 512 to 327, and so did motorcycle registration, by 8.6 percent. Two years later the figures were 291 and 9 percent, respectively. In 1996 the National Highway and Traffic Association announced that motorcyclists who wore helmets were 9 percent less likely to be injured and 35 percent less likely to be killed, noting to Congress, “Helmets cannot protect the rider from most types of injuries.” That same year, a UC Davis study found that nearly 75 percent of those injured in a motorcycle accident carry no personal health insurance.
Tracking the effectiveness of the California mandatory helmet law is not an easy exercise—fluctuating variables such as percentage of miles traveled by motorcyclists, biker injuries, and number of helmet violation tickets written per year make definitive research cumbersome and debatable. But whether attributed to general knowledge or broad superstition, the common belief in most states is that mandatory helmet laws save lives.
But that’s never stopped determined bareheaded cyclists. Retaliation erupted the moment the California law was passed. Tribes of renegade bikers opting for zero cranial protection banded together. With the advent of the Internet, organizations were formed—Riders for Justice, Helmet Law Defense League (HLDL), and Bikers of a Lesser Tolerance (BOLT). A reformed “suit-and-tie sales stiff,” Richard Quigley of Aptos, Ca. rode into the fight and became California chapter director of BOLT. These furiously stubborn groups, however, still made up the minority of riders.
The anti-helmet crusaders attached themselves to arguing against the vague law. The ambiguity lies in the definition of what constitutes an appropriate helmet. Helmets in California must bear a certification of compliance, a “DOT approved” label, on the back. It is up to the manufacturer to establish that its helmet complies with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 218, the national requirement test that includes dropping a metal sphere on the helmet.
The Bell bicycle and motorcycle helmet laboratory in Santa Cruz, California, resembles a high-end gym one might find in a country club: a large room myriad weight and rail machines. The FMVSS 218 test â€“ a guided rail system that drops a weighted spear onto the helmet â€“ could be the oldest piece of equipment in that gym. The laboratory technicians keep 218 on the far wall, and use it on every helmet they make, but only as their most rudimentary test.
“We feel absolutely competent in going above and beyond standard 218,” said Brian Sidwell, test lab manager. “There are some nuances [within standard 218] that would improve the quality. There’re flaws in its overall geometry.”
Fifteen different Bell helmet-testing labs string from Santa Cruz to China, making Bell the largest helmet-testing company in the world. Bell’s helmets also meet the SNELL requirement, a slightly more rigorous test that certain states, California excluded, require for their helmet law. The company holds its helmets to such a high standard in part because the popularity of their models make them a top pick to be tested for compliance by the National Highway and Traffic Association (NHTSA).
Rae Tyson is a public spokesman for the NHTSA. “We spot-check in the marketplace,” he said, “but it is up to the manufacturer to verify that the helmet does in fact meet the standard. We do an extensive amount of compliance testing where we go out and buy helmets and test them ourselves.”
Each year the NHTSA selects five helmets of a specific model, forty helmets altogether, and tests them to ensure that they pass FMVSS 218. According to its website, if NHTSA concludes that a helmet does not pass 218, the manufacturer is told it must recall the specific model or face a penalty of $5000 for each violation.
There is currently no public list available for recalled helmets.
Kate Wells, a civil rights attorney who is Quigley’s friend and legal advisor, is skeptical of whether or not the majority of helmet manufacturers are testing their helmets. “Any manufacturer can slap a DOT sticker on and put it up for sale,” Wells said. “The manufacturer is supposed to follow 218. How many do? Maybe the big manufacturers. The test is incredibly expensive.”
Thom Parks, another lab technician at Bell sports, is a bit more optimistic.
“DOT testing of a given helmet model in a given size is pretty cheap relative to the total cost of the helmet—under $500,” Parks said. “All helmets sold in the US are made at large factories in China, Korea, Japan or Italy, which all have in-house test labs.” Parks stressed that like Bell, a majority of helmet manufacturers test their helmets at outside, independent labs.
Since the creation of FMVSS 218, bad-boy cyclists have been seduced into purchasing “novelty helmets.” These caps â€“ several rungs higher on the badass meter â€“ compliment beards and chains and black leather. The half-shell fiberglass lid doesn’t cover the ears and offers virtually no protection to the head or brain. It’s often flared on the sides like a Nazi helmet. The hats are known in different circles as skull caps, beanies, half-shells or shorty’s. They typically come with a counterfeit DOT sticker that the rider can paste on the back. Positively cheesy, but occasionally passable to a naÃ¯ve police officer.
“We see guys in the marketplace who are risk-takers with limited liability. They’ll import skull caps and put a DOT label on it,” said Brian Sidwell. “That’s nuts.”
“This is a helmet, a safety device,” he pleads. “Will they be caught? Maybe. And maybe not. If they know what they’re doing, then maybe not. It’s slow to weed [the manufacturers] out.”
Herein lies the loophole that warrants Richard Quigley to proudly wear his “DOT-approved” baseball cap and call it his helmet. In 2005, 67 percent of motorcyclists in states requiring helmet use wore DOT-compliant helmets, according to a National Occupant Protection Survey. Quigley’s army, the members of BOLT California, are in part the soldiers falling into that remaining 33 percent.
Beyond skull protection, there are other reasons people support a helmet law. Societal burden and increased insurance rates are the most common arguing points. The other side has found loopholes to these claims, and most anti-helmet activists will happily debate the big-picture issues, but their primary argument is that helmets are too uncomfortable, too heavy, and too restrictive.
“All you have to do is put on a helmet to realize that they affect your ability to see and to hear,” said Richard Quigley from his small home deep in the Aptos hills. Quigley laments that full-face helmets, the ones he says are recommended by the CHP, inherently impair hearing and reduce peripheral vision. “They mess with your equilibrium in strange ways,” he said.
In 1994, the National Public Services Research Institute found that wearing a motorcycle helmet does not restrict a rider’s ability to hear auditory signals or see another vehicle, writes the NHTSA.
Supporters of bareheaded riding are quick to point out that three out of four motorcycle-related accidents occur in intersections, from bikers colliding with motorists failing to yield. “When I’m riding around bareheaded,” Quigley says, “I’ve noticed that more people have the propensity to see me and look out for my safety. And that’s what you need when you ride a motorcycle.”
On September 13, 2006, Reuters reported that drivers were up to two times more likely to drive closer to helmeted bicyclists when passing than bareheaded ones. After riding a bicycle fitted with a computer and an ultrasonic distance sensor, British researcher Ian Walker concluded, after being passed more than 2500 times, that wearing a safety helmet may make a collision more likely. (He also found that drivers gave him an average of 5.5 more inches of space when he wore a blonde wig and was mistaken for a woman.)
While the battle against protective headgear may sound outrageous, it holds enough importance for this subculture â€“ of which many members have no other interest in political activism â€“ to dedicate an ample portion of their lives fighting, in court and out. Since 1992, these individuals have lobbied and demonstrated, networked, formed alliances, spent money on research, and attracted as much attention as they could to the issue.
Kate Wells, Quigley’s attorney, does not ride a motorcycle, but her issue transcends ambiguous motorcycle helmet standards. “Why do they pick on bikers?” she asks, in reference to big government. “Obviously because they can. It’s a group without a lot of political clout.”
Richard Quigley died peacefully in his Aptos home on September 16, 2007. He was 63. A born rebel, Quigley resisted the idea that a person can’t be present at his own death service. His “living” wake was held in November 2005, and was attended by hundreds of family and friends, who passed around a mic and told Quigley personally how he changed their lives. “His loss has had a great impact on the motorcycle world,” said Mike Osborn, Quigley’s chief administer for the case. “The best thing we can do for Richard is to keep going.” In honor of Richard Quigley’s life work, donations may be made to the ongoing litigation against the CHP at ABATE Judicial Fund, 10240 Seventh Avenue, Hesperia, CA. 92345-231