Myrtle Beach Helmet Law Stirs Anger The city used to be a haven for tens of thousands of motorcyclists before a law was passed requiring all riders to wear helmets. The law has cut down on rallies, but it has also led to a lawsuit before the state Supreme Court.
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Myrtle Beach Helmet Law Stirs Anger

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Myrtle Beach Helmet Law Stirs Anger

Myrtle Beach Helmet Law Stirs Anger

Myrtle Beach Helmet Law Stirs Anger

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/113535878/113548701" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Motorcycle enthusiasts gathered last week at a biker bar outside Myrtle Beach, S.C. The resort area used to attract as many as half a million bikers a year for three annual rallies. The city has taken steps to control the rallies, and many bikers are staying away. Adam Hochberg/NPR hide caption

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Adam Hochberg/NPR

Motorcycle enthusiasts gathered last week at a biker bar outside Myrtle Beach, S.C. The resort area used to attract as many as half a million bikers a year for three annual rallies. The city has taken steps to control the rallies, and many bikers are staying away.

Adam Hochberg/NPR

Myrtle Beach, S.C., is known for its family resorts, picturesque golf courses and big and noisy motorcycle rallies. That last distinction is one city leaders would just as soon do without.

The city is trying to scale back rallies that bring hundreds of thousands of bikers to town. One way they're doing it is by enforcing a city helmet law in a state where bikers have the right to go bareheaded.

South Carolina is one of a handful of states on the East Coast where it's legal for adults to ride without a helmet. Tired of the noise and constant partyers, Myrtle Beach passed a mandatory-helmet law for all bikers.

Retired truck driver Jack Gunter likes to vacation in the city with his Harley-Davidson.

"I live in a state that requires you to wear a helmet. I come here so I don't have to wear one," Gunter says. "I think it ought to be a rider's choice."

For motorcycle enthusiasts, roaring down the highway at 60 miles an hour or more with nothing on your head except your own windblown hair, splattered with road grit, is a symbol of freedom.

Gunter was visiting a biker bar a few miles outside Myrtle Beach. The place normally would have been very busy this past weekend, when some 40,000 bikers typically come for their annual fall rally.

But this year, the number was down dramatically, after Myrtle Beach became South Carolina's only city with a helmet ordinance. Jeff Bennett is among those who now refuse to ride or spend money inside the city limits.

"They lose millions and millions and millions of dollars from us not going there. So it don't hurt us. It hurts them," Bennett says.

Scaring Off Tourists

So why would a resort city pass a law that's scaring off tourists — especially in this economy?

Leaders here say safety was one motive. But the bigger reason had less to do with the well-being of bikers than the tranquillity of townsfolk.

City officials say Myrtle Beach was being overwhelmed by its three annual bike rallies — one in the fall and two in the spring — which brought noise, traffic and more than a quarter-million often-raucous partyers.

Mayor John Rhodes says residents simply have had enough. He helped push through the helmet law, a noise ordinance and several other measures intended to bring the events under control.

"You had people that have a Harley as a toy and they're coming down here for the week playing 'Easy Rider,' " Rhodes says. "You had bikes going through areas where houses are — right on up to one, two o'clock in the morning."

Among the residents who fought for the new laws is retired state trooper Paul Price. He recently built his dream house a few blocks from the ocean, but he didn't know at the time that a nearby parking lot hosts biker parties.

"Even inside the house with all the windows shut and everything, the noise is so loud, you can't even watch TV," says Price. "And the loudspeakers — the bands get on 'em and they start blasting. Some of them use profanity and you can't even let your grandkids out in the yard."

Discrimination Lawsuit

Local leaders have heard complaints like that for years, and they made several earlier efforts to control the rallies. At one point, the city specifically targeted the annual Memorial Day event that attracts mainly African-American bikers.

That led to a discrimination lawsuit from the NAACP that took years to settle. Now, the new measures, which apply to all the rallies, have sparked a different kind of lawsuit.

Tom Herron is with a business group that is challenging Myrtle Beach's right to require helmets in a state where you can ride everywhere else without them.

"The reason we're suing the city is because we think it's unconstitutional to try to supersede state law," Herron says. "Where you can be driving along and happen to go through a 10-foot-square corner of Myrtle Beach and get arrested for a helmet — that's ridiculous."

Herron's lawsuit is before the South Carolina Supreme Court, with a decision likely in the next several months.

Even if the helmet ordinance is overturned, most riders at the biker bar outside town vow never to come back to Myrtle Beach — not even, in the words of one, to buy a pack of gum.