California bikers trade leathers for lobbying

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"Be Courteous to Our Neighbours," reads the sign at the gate of the Sagebrush Cafe, not far from a double row of Harley-Davidsons. "Please Don't Rev Your Engines in the Car Park."

Tony Bourne is a designer in the garment trade, but this Superbowl Sunday he's sporting the badge of the Southern California Harley Riders Association, smoking a pungent little cigar and spitting obscenities. "Helmet laws should be for minors. We're adults that know better. Kids, they're the ones that keep crashing all the time."

California's biker fraternity runs from yuppies riding custom bikes on Sunday jaunts to a hard core who live in the saddle. But there is one issue that unites them - loathing for the state's helmet law, enacted in 1991. It has driven them to trade bikers' brawn for political muscle.

Fighting for the right to cruise the Pacific highways with the wind in their hair, bikers' groups are recognised as some of the state's sharpest political operators. Last week the California assembly voted 42-30 to repeal the helmet law. The new Republican majority, in a curious alliance with people usually associated in the public mind with drugs, gangs, and violence, rallied to the bikers' cause. Legislators cited freedom of choice against the nanny state.

"I'll give you my Benjamin Franklin quote," said Bogie, 52, a biker and sometime bouncer at the Sagebrush. " 'When you give up freedom for security, you lose both'. And how about this one? 'More people die of obesity than motorcycle accidents in America. Let's outlaw butter'."

Bikers have been attending civics classes, raising money, holding rallies and walking the corridors in the state capital, Sacramento. They clashed head-on with lobbyists of the California insurance industry on the helmet issue. Republican legislators disregarded evidence that fatal accidents among the 500,000 registered motorbike owners in California had fallen by 45 per cent since the law's passage. They now threaten to override the veto of their own party's Governor, Pete Wilson, who wants to keep the law.

Paul Lax, a Los Angeles attorney and motorcyclist, who is secretary of the bikers' group Abate (American Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education), said California was the last state to enact a helmet law. At one time or another 49 states had such statutes but similar biker campaigns ended in the repeal of more than half.

Abate first targeted and toppled the California assemblyman who wrote the helmet law. The group found a female opponent who was sympathetic to the cause, and a contingent of bikers doubled her campaign staff overnight.

"We don't go into the campaign headquarters to drink coffee; we go to work," said Mr Lax. "We can never compete with the other lobby groups or the insurance industry in terms of dollars. We have to put shoe leather into this."

Instead, bikers go from door to door - in non-threatening jeans and trainers, rather than leathers - and talk about the candidate rather than helmets.

David Knowles, a Republican assemblyman who voted for the law, remembers being surrounded by a group of angry motorcyclists in leathers as he shook hands at a local parade.

"When they held out their business cards instead of razor blades, they impressed me," said Mr Knowles, who shortly afterwards reversed his stand.

"I realised they were not irresponsible people - they were working folks who wanted government out of their hair and out of their life."

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