Momentum revving for helmet bill 6-5 committee vote drives measure to the Senate floor


ANNAPOLIS -- A bill that would require motorcyclists to wear helmets survived a close Senate committee vote yesterday and now has its best chance of becoming law in more than a decade.

Forget rhetoric, safety arguments and the lure of federal safety funds, said the two senators who proved to be the swing votes on the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The only issue for them was the $1.3 million the state can save on medical care for injured cyclists who are on Medicaid or have no health insurance.

"I was convinced by the Medicaid argument," said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel, who voted for the repeal of a similar helmet law in 1979 and has voted down every subsequent attempt to revive it. "I'm not going to be a very popular person."

Sen. Howard A. Denis, R-Montgomery, was waffling until the last minute, but he also found himself persuaded by the financial argument, as well as a visit from a constituent injured in a motorcycle accident.

"That did push me the other way," the senator said of his Tuesday meeting with a 22-year-old Potomac man in rehabilitation for head injuries.

Supporters, while thrilled with the 6-5 victory in the Senate committee, say a victory on the Senate floor is far from assured.

"It's not over yet," said David S. Iannucci, the governor's chief lobbyist.

Opponents are left with two strategies -- trying to muster the votes to defeat the bill, or undermining it with an amendment that would make the law a "secondary" offense.

If such an amendment were attached, cyclists could not be cited for violating the helmet law unless they had been stopped for another offense, such as speeding.

Mr. Jimeno had been prepared to offer such an amendment in committee but said both sides urged him to drop the idea. He said he would support the amendment if it came to the floor.

Meanwhile, opponents of the helmet bill fretted that momentum will be working against them.

After a House committee approved the bill, it came up for a vote nine days later. The Senate vote could be as soon as Friday.

"It's back on the same track of greased skids," said one disappointed opponent, Kenny Brown of A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments (ABATE).

ABATE members have been lobbying the Senate since the House passed the bill by a lopsided 103-29 margin. As of Monday night, they thought they had locked up enough votes to kill the bill in committee.

Then Mr. Denis had his meeting with the injured constituent.

However, Mr. Denis said he almost changed his mind yet again, when the anti-helmet faction sent him a videotape yesterday morning, in which Washington anchorman Jim Vance made a 10-minute argument against the helmet bill.

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