Many Ventura County motorcyclists appeared to be complying Wednesday with a new state law requiring them to wear helmets while riding, but some protested the requirement and others openly defied it.
George Christie Jr., the leader of the Ventura County chapter of the Hells Angels motorcycle club, said he spent New Year's Day tooling around Ventura on his bike--helmet-less.
"At some point I know I'm going to have to put on a helmet," Christie said. "But I haven't gotten up the nerve yet."
And Christie said he is not alone.
Despite the restriction, about 50% of the Hells Angels members in Ventura have declined to wear helmets, and one has already been cited by police, Christie said.
Under the law, violators will be fined $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second and $250 for the third. If a motorcyclist is repeatedly fined, a patrol officer can forbid the driver to leave on the motorcycle until the rider obtains a helmet.
Said Christie: "I hope people realize the laws like this just set the tide for more laws. At some point in time, people are going to wake up and realize a lot of basic things they took for granted are gone."
At The Wheel, a watering hole for motorcycle enthusiasts in the Ojai area on California 33, many of those riding motorcycles Wednesday wore helmets, but were eager to let it be known that they were complying under protest.
"I'm really sick of people telling me what to do with my life," said Mike Potts, from Ojai Valley, who rode his Harley to the local hangout. He wore a small, red fiberglass helmet that sported adhesive stickers that echoed his sentiments: "Helmet Laws Suck" and "I'm not wearing this helmet by choice."
Nevertheless, Potts said, he will wear his helmet for practical reasons that have nothing to do with safety.
"If I wasn't on probation and I had 100 bucks to spare, I'd tell'em to shove it," he said. "Russia gets their freedom and we lose ours."
George Huitrado of Oak View arrived at The Wheel on his Harley wearing a black, full-coverage helmet he bought recently at a garage sale for $3. He said he wasn't wearing it by choice and is an active member of American Brotherhood Aimed Towards Education (ABATE), a statewide group that organized to fight the helmet law.
"We're obeying the law, but we're doing everything we can to oppose it," he said.
ABATE State Director Paul Lax said the group, which has about 7,000 members statewide, is supporting a helmet protest scheduled in Sacramento on Monday. He said he expects several thousand people to show up.
"I think everyone severely underestimated the reaction that this law is generating," Lax said.
Although Lax said he has heard that some helmet law opponents are considering making a public display of smashing or burning helmets, ABATE is against that kind of action.
"We're encouraging our people to stay away from that kind of nonsense," he said. He said, however, that his organization has not ruled out the use of civil disobedience at a later date if judicial remedies prove unsuccessful.
As of late Wednesday afternoon, law enforcement officials said enforcement of the law in Ventura County did not appear to have led to any problems.
Sgt. Dane Hayward of the Ventura County California Highway Patrol said CHP officers have been told to begin strict enforcement of the law, but it did not appear that officers had spotted many lawbreakers.
"I haven't heard of anyone giving tickets," Hayward said. "From what I can see so far, people seem to be complying."
Despite the controversy over the law, recreational rider Keith Stringer--who was cruising on his bike down Main Street in Ventura--said he thinks that it's a good idea to wear a helmet, although sometimes he forgets.
"It just protects you," said Stringer, wearing a shiny, black helmet. "I feel good about the law."
Even before the law went into effect, Stringer said he wore his helmet all the time while driving on the freeway. But on short trips, he said he usually went without.
He said he started to leave the house to go to the store Wednesday without his helmet when his wife reminded him about the law. He said it is going to take some time to get used to the restriction.
Tina Daunt is a Times staff writer and David Ciaffardini is a correspondent.