Motorcycle riders have strong ties to key senators filibustering the proposal
By JOHN MONK
“Biker power” is helping keep the S.C. Senate in gridlock.
In the ongoing Senate filibuster blocking a vote on a strong seat-belt law — which might resume Tuesday — the most influential behind-the-scenes people have turned out to be a group of long-haired, blue jeans-and-leather-clad motorcycle riders.
For weeks, dressed in motorcycle-riding regalia, the bikers have provided a counterpoint — both in message and appearance — to the suit-clad, well-coiffed lobbyists for organizations like AAA Carolinas and the S.C. Law Enforcement Officers Association, who are working to pass a strong seat-belt law.
“It's just citizens coming up here on our own because they care about their rights, as opposed to being funded by large corporations,” said Fred “Fast Fred” Ruddock, 39, president of a statewide motorcycle group called ABATE.
Like the rest of his group, Ruddock is a fierce opponent of any law that would require motorists to wear seat belts or bikers to wear helmets. He believes in safety devices — it's just that he wants people to have the right to choose whether to wear them.
The bikers — often a dozen or so, but once, more than 100 — buttonhole senators and sit in the Senate galleries showing their support for the minority of senators who are denying the majority a chance to vote on a strong seat-belt bill.
The bikers have close ties to the three key senators opposing a strong seat-belt law: President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston; Jake Knotts, R-Lexington; and John Kuhn, R-Charleston.
“Without the support of folks like that, we'd be shot dead in the water for sure,” Ruddock said. The initials of his group, ABATE, stand for A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments.
McConnell, Knotts and Kuhn have done most of the filibustering that has blocked a seat-belt vote. In so doing, they air views about “personal liberty” that are in sync with the bikers' views.
To the bikers, the filibustering senators are defending American freedoms and fighting big government. “I think our founding fathers would be quite proud of them,” said Ruddock, of North Charleston. He works in the information technology field at the College of Charleston.
For the filibustering senators, apparently, the feeling is mutual.
“McConnell ... told us we are the last chance for the defense of liberty,” says a report on the ABATE-South Carolina Internet site. McConnell could not be reached for comment and has refused to speak to The State about the seat-belt issue.
But, Ruddock said, “We've had a relationship with McConnell so long I'm not sure who's influencing who. ... He definitely has a similar political philosophy that we have.”
Asked about ABATE, Kuhn said, “They are fabulous.”
In a Senate speech last week, Kuhn acknowledged that the freedom to not wear a seat belt means some people might die. He said he accepts that.
ABATE bikers feel the same way.
“I don't understand how you can value life more than liberty,” Ruddock said.
South Carolina has a weak, or secondary, seat-belt law. Adult motorists can't be cited for not wearing a seat belt unless an officer spots them committing another violation first. Motorists 17 and younger can be cited for not wearing a seat belt without an officer first seeing another violation.
But, as a practical matter, police find it difficult to issue citations for seat-belt violations.
The proposed bill would allow police to issue a $25 ticket to adults not wearing a seat belt — without first spotting another violation.
‘OLD SOUTH CAROLINA ATTITUDE'
The bikers represent a “throwback to an old South Carolina attitude,” said Sen. Tom Smith, D-Florence. “They don't want anyone telling them what to do — whether or not it's for the general good.”
The bikers, clad in motorcycle clothes, make an impression on the senators, Smith said.
“They show up by the dozens — it's intimidating by their presence,” Smith said.
Ruddock said people can't judge bikers by their motorcycle garb alone.
“Quite a few of us wear suits to work,” he said. “We come from a wide variety of occupations. We have a lot of people who work in offices.” Others are construction workers or have a trade, he said. Bikers have to have good jobs to pay for their bikes, he said.
“Motorcycles aren't cheap nowadays. Even the imports are quite expensive — the Harleys are outrageous. They're about $20,000 ... We have people who ride $30,000 to $40,000 motorcycles,” he said.
About 30 of 46 senators have said they favor a strong seat-belt law.
Some 60 percent of South Carolinians also favor a strong seat-belt law, according to a poll by the National Safety Council.
The groups supporting a stronger law include Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the S.C. Hospital Association, AAA Carolinas, AARP, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Business & Health Alliance for Managed Care, Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of South Carolina, S.C. Chamber of Commerce, S.C. Coroners Association, S.C. Law Enforcement Officers Association, S.C. Medical Association, S.C. Police Chiefs Association, S.C. Public Safety Foundation and S.C. Troopers Association.
Some of those groups are represented by professional lobbyists such as Lynn Stokes Murray of the McNair Law Firm and Don McElveen of the S.C. Public Safety Foundation.
McElveen, Murray and other seat-belt advocates also are staking out the State House these days, doing the same thing the bikers are doing — buttonholing senators.
The bikers say they aren't worried about the mainstream lobbyists — they have McConnell, Knotts and Kuhn on their side. “I have a lot of faith in them,” Ruddock said.
Ruddock declined to say how many ABATE members there are in South Carolina, but he indicated the group has more than 1,000.
“We're doing this with almost no money,” Ruddock said. “That is what gives us our edge.
“We have people who really care and want to keep their rights.”
In the first three months of this year, 203 people with access to seat belts have died on state roads. Of those, 157 — 77 percent — weren't buckled up.
State and federal authorities say at least half who died could have been saved if they had worn seat belts.
South Carolina has one of the nation's highest road death rates and — at 66 percent — one of the nation's lowest buckle-up rates.
State and federal studies estimate that South Carolina spends $140 million a year in needless medical costs because of people not buckling up.