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Southern Rail: Big brother blues

By Robert Filla

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Motorcycles used to be simple things—tomato can for a carb, handful of wires, kickstarter between two tires. And then the politicians began wringing their hands when they saw us having too much fun on a vehicle so dangerous it can’t even hold itself up without a human for stabilization. So they set out on a mission that included maximum limits for handlebar height, decibel ratings and mandatory helmet usage. But in an effort to keep the lifestyle pure, ingenious riders fought back, devising ways to skirt around such matters. Keeping your risers loose you can instantly lower an offending handlebar before the squad car can even turn around. Early on we figured out how to install butterfly exhaust baffles that could be twisted into a closed position before an officer shoved his nightstick into the tail end. And we uncovered the power of helmet protests and someone even invented legal novelty helmets. But those politicians keep hammering away.

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” That quote by President Ronald Reagan is quite famous, mostly due to its legitimacy. And a recent piece of Texas motorcycle legislation serves as a fine example of this remark; Malorie’s Law, a well-intentioned but poorly-composed bit of legislation written by an ill-informed government official. Texas HB-3838 went into effect on January 1 of this year and basically it states that a motorcycle that is designed to carry more than one person must be equipped with footrests and handholds for use by the passenger. Malorie’s Law was named for 19-year-old Malorie Bullock who was killed four years ago when riding as a passenger on her boyfriend’s bike. While trying to avoid a collision with a vehicle, they were thrown from the bike. Both were wearing helmets, he survived, Malorie tragically did not. The enacted law is the result of the Bullock family working with Texas State Representative Larry Phillips, the bill’s author.

Immediate questions arose with one of the first being, “What if I’m not carrying a passenger?” According to Phillips, he meant that if you have a passenger, you need handholds and foot pegs. Unfortunately that’s not what the law as passed states but reads instead, “a motorcycle that is designed to carry more than one person must be equipped…” So if you have a passenger seat or, even possibly, if the bike was originally designed to carry a passenger it must be so equipped even if you’re riding alone or have stripped it down to a solo saddle. Too bad since that’s really not what Rep. Phillips meant. Not too bad for Phillips; he doesn’t ride. Too bad for Texas bikers.

Our next question was a bit more simple: “What constitutes a passenger handhold?” Funny thing about that; no one really seems to know—it was never actually addressed. According to Texas ABATE, “By not identifying what a handhold is, we interpret it to include the bottom of a sissybar, an attached luggage rack or the manufacturer’s provided seat strap. If it’s permanently affixed to your bike and your passenger can hold on to it, it should be considered a handhold—at least until we are proven wrong in court.” Great; now I have to go to court to prove I understand a poorly-written law better than those who wrote it.

Plus it’s being left up to individual law enforcement agencies to determine whether your handhold is legal. So what the DPS may be cool with, your local county sheriff may not; it’s up to their personal discretion. And since it’s their personal discretion, that opinion may change from day to day, influenced by a sour mood due to a crappy day on the job, a fight with the wife or a grudge against greasy bikers.

Oddly, neither passenger footrests nor a handhold are required to pass your yearly motorcycle inspection requirement. And when asked whether the motorcycle passenger was required by law to actually use the footrests and handhold, no one had an answer.

So we have another vague law on the books that no one really understands but is open for interpretation by anyone with a badge. But surely modifications can be made to Malorie’s Law to address these glaring issues, correct? Sure, but not until sometime during the 2017 legislative session. That’s the earliest date. But that’s OK; we can always fight it in court… for the next two years.

But we may not have to worry about deciphering all this silly motorcycle nonsense since a Texas House and Senate bill legalizing “responsible” lane-splitting practices has been recently introduced. And when you consider the skill level of a large percentage of riders factored in with the reckless attitude of most Texas drivers, if lane splitting becomes legal, most bikers will be dead within a year. “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

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