Helmet Advocacy

Just call him Easy Regulator.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Administrator Ricardo Martinez is now a graduate of a two-day motorcycle training course, taken along with eight other agency officials who are involved in motorcycle regulation and who often differ with bikers on one very sensitive subject: strapping on a helmet.

Martinez, fresh from the course sponsored by the state of Maryland and coordinated by two motorcycle groups, named his Honda 250 "Bubba." He said the experience brought back memories of college days at Louisiana State University when he took to flat roads on a bike he acquired in a trade for stereo speakers. "Going up in the levees was just a joy," he said.

The love affair lasted 18 months, until he got a call from his father, a physician, who didn't want his son to become a statistic in an emergency room. The bike got traded again. "I always loved bikes. You become part of the bike," he said.

The idea of Martinez, an emergency-room physician, climbing astride a bike and getting close to the asphalt with seasoned motorcyclists was intended to give him a bikers' view of safety. It also was designed to show bikers that NHTSA cared as much about rider education as it did about state helmet laws.

"The agency has a strong interest in motorcycling," Martinez said, especially since the demographics of the sport are changing. There are more female bikers, riders are older, their incomes are increasing and more professionals ride bikes. There are 6.6 million motorcycles in use, up from 5.1 million in 1990, according to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation in Irvine, Calif.

Whether bikers have to wear helmets is a state issue. But NHTSA long has played an advocacy role for helmet laws in the states, much as it promotes the use of seat belts and child car seats.

The District, Maryland, Virginia and 20 other states require all riders to wear helmets. Still other states require helmets for certain riders, usually those under age 18. Colorado, Illinois and Iowa have no helmet laws.

The agency and some biking groups have been sparring over NHTSA's role for some time, arguing over whether it's a proper use of federal funds. Their differences culminated last year when bikers succeeded in getting language inserted into federal highway legislation barring NHTSA from favoring or opposing any specific state legislative proposal.

"Our position is that it's inappropriate use of tax dollars that a federal agency lobbies at the state level," said Steve Zimmer, vice president of government relations for the Motorcycle Riders Foundation. Some bikers were further incensed by the recent production of a NHTSA video called "Without Motorcycle Helmets We All Pay the Price," suggesting bikers who are injured are a burden on society.

Many bikers oppose any helmet laws, insisting that bikers are as well insured as other motorists. But Zimmer said most motorcyclists are not against helmets, and even in states without mandatory helmet laws usage runs from 60 percent to 80 percent.

Ed Moreland, Washington representative for the American Motorcyclist Association, which represents 235,000 bikers, said helmets are an important element in biker safety -- but maybe not the most important one.

"It's only one element in a comprehensive approach. A properly trained rider is more likely not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Moreland, meaning an accident can be avoided altogether. "Training is more likely to save lives than putting a helmet on them and sending them on their way."

The Maryland course, for example, included instruction on risk awareness, street strategies, turning and braking, and riding.

But Martinez is unlikely to change his mind about helmets, especially after his emergency-room exposure to biker head injuries.

He said cyclists are like "the egg outside the carton." They are 15 times more likely than car occupants to die in a crash -- and many of the deaths are from head injuries. Most biker accidents are caused by car drivers not seeing the cyclist or turning in front of him.

Martinez said he's ready to get a license and do more biking now that he's trained. He's also pushing the National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety, a blueprint developed by bikers and the agency to promote safety at the local level.

But whether Martinez joins the ranks of bikers such as Marlon Brando, Peter Fonda, Steve McQueen and Evel Knievel is an open question that raises another: "Hey, Ricardo, what are you rebelling against?"

But he did cut a decidedly nonregulatory figure in blue chambray shirt, jeans, boots and a multicolored helmet with a bandanna underneath. Colleagues and instructors said he was an "exceptional" student, in the classroom and on "Bubba," though he never left the parking lot.

"He kept looking off into the distance," said one attendee, suggesting Martinez may have been longing for the open road.

Or maybe he was remembering Robert Pirsig's 1974 bestseller, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance": ". . . You don't make great conversations on a running cycle. Instead you spend your time being aware of things and meditating on them. On sights and sounds, on the mood of the weather, on things remembered, on the machine and the countryside you're in. . . ."