Common Tread

What if motorcycles were invented last week?

Sep 26, 2016

“New Federal Regulation Prevents Children From Riding As Passengers On Motorcycles”

That headline showed up on my monitor very recently. You can read the whole article here if you have not yet seen it. Before you click, let me just warn you, lest you waste your time: It’s fake.

Though it has no factual basis (It did fool me, as well as several other Zillans!), it did get me thinking. It’s a very believable headline, and there are plenty of people who would push for such a regulation — motorcyclists and non-motorcyclists alike. Heck, we saw a very lively debate over children as motorcycle pillions with no real legal obstacle present when Lance reported on that topic earlier this year.

I don’t want to stir up controversy over the government’s role in our lives; that’s another argument for another author and a different venue. However, the fake news article did make me sit back and ponder a topic I have broached with riding friends when in my cups. If motorcycles were not so very thoroughly ingrained in American society since just after the golden age of the cowboy, would we be riding them around?

What if someone tried to invent the motorcycle now?

The modern world is nearly obsessed with safety. That’s especially true regarding transportation safety in this country. Just recently, the Department of Transportation publicly backed self-driving cars. In most states, seatbelts are mandatory equipment in a car. Going back to underage passengers, some states require a child to be in some form of an automotive car seat until attaining a height of four feet, nine inches.

The situation I generally pose to friends is this: What would happen if motorcycles had not been invented until today? As a nation, we have been conditioned since birth to see riders perched atop machines capable of unholy acceleration, often disappearing in flagrant violation of a few traffic laws and common sense. In one lane, you can easily find a person buckled safely into a car with ABS, crash avoidance systems, advanced traction control systems, and multiple impact airbags. Cheek by jowl, that same driver may be buzzing along next to someone riding on what amounts to an engine and wheels, with no safety belts, crumple zones, or collapsible steering column.

Again, I’m not proposing that the laws are good as they stand, nor am I suggesting they should be different. I’m merely pointing out the juxtaposition of those two vehicles: one has been the subject of intense safety regulation, and the other is still reasonably dangerous.

No helmet, no problem.
Would this photo even be fathomable had motorcycles not come about just after the cowboy? Photo by Dan Venditto.

We accept this as normal because we've seen it our whole lives. What if it hadn't happened that way? What if no one had ever strapped a motor to a bicycle and up to now we just had cars? Your imagination may work differently than mine, but I would think if a company rolled out a product today that acted and looked like a motorcycle (not a modern hypersport, but also not an antique; say something like a mid-1990s standard bike, for sake of argument), the government would step in quickly to legislate such an item right out of existence.

The power-to-weight ratio of even a middleweight motorcycle seems absurd when compared against all but the fastest of cars. The distinct need for decisive, active input from a skilled rider probably would not stand in a time when many Americans are really looking forward to the day when they can purchase a safe, self-operating car. (Is that an automatic automobile?)

American motorcyclists are roughly 27 times more likely to be killed in a crash than an automobile driver per mile traveled, a number the bean-counters would certainly call “statistically significant.” America’s love of personal freedom predates the nation’s first birthday by a significant amount, but I cannot help but think that if a motorcycle was invented some time in the last month and somehow managed to squeak by and be made legal for street use, helmets would be mandatory, along with a litany of other safety items.

The bikes themselves would likely be legislated more heavily as well. In the chopper world, it’s not uncommon to see “wink-wink” bikes on the road. Improper and inadequate lighting, wildly inappropriate tires, and chassis modified in ways that would make Picasso proud are not commonplace, but they’re definitely out there. Generally, the builders of these machines can create and ride them easily, with little legal interference. I cannot imagine an extended fork or apehanger handlebars, or bikes that do not display turn signals would be fathomable if motorcycles were a nascent invention.

In the same vein, riding itself might be viewed a little differently. I’ll pull my front wheel up for a little kid, or skid my rear tire just like I did on my bicycle when I was a tyke. We’ve all attempted to shatter the sound barrier once or twice on our machines, and usually the worst we’ll get is a horn honk from a motorist, or the occasional driving performance award from the local constabulary. On the other hand, imagine what reactions would be were the motorcycle a fresh idea just released upon the public? Think of the poor motorist who for the first time saw a rider performing a stoppie on one of those new “motorbikes” he heard about. I suspect his mind would blow apart like a popped zit.

And to bring this article back around full circle, in this imaginary world I have created, I cannot under any circumstances imagine some possible way I could put Lemmy, Jr. onto the back of a death sled and go for a Saturday afternoon putt. I don’t even like to take him all geared up in the current world, and I’m hardly Safety Sam. If motorcycles were a new development, there’s no doubt in my mind that our little excursions would earn a charge of reckless endangerment of a minor or some such equivalent.

The development of the motorcycle in America is interesting when compared to the automobile. It is nearly vestigial. Motorcycling, an activity that's potentially fatal, appears to have slipped through the cracks — danger will likely be legal for the considerable future.

Happily, since that article we opened up with is as fake as a three-dollar bill, the generation of riders coming up behind me can probably say the same thing.