Saturday, July 22, 2006


I'm not looking to debate the virtues of the motorcycle against their disadvantages here. Maybe another day. What I want to ask about is much simpler.

Regulation of automobiles includes a number of strict requirements which are intended to ensure that each automobile is a "good neighbor". There are safety requirements before automobiles may be sold or operated on public roads, concerning both their ability to withstand a crash and the amount of damage they can do to others. There was a while that convertibles were almost never made because materials technology wasn't up to making convertibles that could pass the roll tests, for instance. There are very specific requirements concerning emissions to control pollution. There are even requirements concerning noise levels. Most of these requirements are confirmed before the car is ever sold and then reconfirmed on an annual basis at an inspection, at the driver's cost. This system may not be perfect, but there are few (outside of libertarians, I imagine) that are advocating its elimination.

It seems that most of these rules are simply waived for motorcycles. Not weakened, not adapted, but simply omitted. Motorcycles do not and cannot offer even a miniscule fraction of the safety features of even the most dangerous car. Admittedly most of these glaring shortcomings are in dangers to the driver, though it's arguable that there are demonstrable ways in which a motorcycle makes the road more dangerous for others by his presence, due to his bike's almost complete lack of safety features. Motorcycles are routinely far, far louder than any car would be allowed to be and still pass its inspection. It's hard to think of any requirement automobiles have to pass that motorcycles have to pass; in fact, companies have made cutting-edge automobile designs into three-wheelers specifically to take advantage of the huge disparity in requirements.

What I don't understand is why the disparity is so great. Seems that all the reasons that justify most (probably not all, but most) of the requirements for automobiles should apply just as well to vehicles with fewer wheels.

Some of these requirements are intended to provide the driver protection for himself and his passengers, and I can accept that motorcyclists are allowed to knowingly, by informed consent, give up those protections -- for that I'll merely call them fools. (It can be and sometimes is argued that there's some room to argue against allowing people wantonly self-destructive behavior because of costs to society from such, but it's easily noted that's the slipperiest of slopes, so only the absolutely most egregious forms of victimless self-destruction are generally regulated on this basis. Whether motorcycles, with their incredibly high accident and fatality rates, constitute sufficiently egregious self-destruction is a fair question; but in the absence of a compelling case, I'll grant bikers the benefit of the doubt and say it isn't.)

But why are motorcyclists allowed to cause accidents that harm others at a vastly higher rate than other drivers do? Why are they allowed to make harsh blaring noise louder than five other cars put together as they rip through neighborhoods?

(To be fair, I'll point out that I realize a few things. Motorcycles get fantastic mileage and thus produce far less emissions. They take up less space in parking lots, even on roads. Their manufacture and disposal may well have less environmental impact. They probably cause less wear and tear on the road system. Duly noted, all. But as I said, I'm not here to debate the advantages and disadvantages of motorcycles, just to ask why the disparity exists on our society's standards for their impact on the rest of traffic.)

1 comment:

litlfrog said...

Our treatment of motorcycles does seem strange when you compare them to cars. I never thought of it as a disparity before; we regulate cars in the ways we can regulate cars and motorcycles in the ways we can regulate motorcycles. They're obviously much more similar than they are different, though. I suppose we don't demand that they be made safer because they really can't be. At the end of the day, you're balancing on top of a two-wheeled machine going as fast as a cheetah. Saying to the whole class of motorcycle drivers, "You can't drive those anymore, even though people have done so since the invention of the gasoline engine" wouldn't be politically viable even if it could somehow be justified for the good of society. As for the noise issue, most bikes can pass inspection just fine; asshats retune them after getting them back from inspection to get that loud, sickly Harley Davidson sputter.