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SHIFTING GEARS State may eliminate motorcycle classes


Lying battered and bruised beneath 440 pounds of Honda motorcycle, Darby Butt could only watch as her future fiance rushed to her side and uttered that fateful question.

"Well, I know you'd be crying if you were hurt, so did you damage the bike, Hon?"

The answer was no -- although she was ready to punch her boyfriend right between the headlights. But the tumble in a parking lot last February convinced the 31-year-old Overlea resident that she needed to know a bit more about it before she ever tried to drive a motorcycle again.

Shift gears to last Thursday, when Ms. Butt and 30 others began a 20-hour intensive course on motorcycle safety sponsored by the Motor Vehicle Administration. If all goes well, she will have successfully completed the course by this afternoon and be ready to apply for a license.

"I've always been a passenger. I always wanted to do this," said Ms. Butt, an unemployed cook.

In the seven years since the state launched the safety program, more than 15,000 people have graduated from the course.

Officials believe it has dramatically reduced motorcycle accident rates, helped lower the number of cycling fatalities each year, and made Maryland's roads significantly safer for everyone.

Not bad for a program that doesn't cost the average taxpayer a dime. It is financed entirely by the motorcyclists through the fees they pay for licenses and registration, and a $50 tuition fee from students.

Little wonder then that motorcyclists and MVA officials alike are upset that the safety classes may soon be cut out, victims of the budget ax wielded this year by the General Assembly.

Under a provision added to this year's state budget, the MVA must shut down its program by March 15 of next year, turning over motorcycle training instruction to private schools.

The MVA, according to the legislature, "should not be in the business of conducting motorcycle training courses."

Tuition rise feared

Motorcycling groups claim that private programs are no substitute for the MVA classes.

They fear that tuition would quadruple, and since the four-day course is only mandatory for motorcycle license applicants under age 18, enrollment would plummet.

"This is the first time we've had an attempt to kill a program by privatizing it," said James M. Bensberg, a lobbyist for the Ohio-based American Motorcyclist Association, which represents about 200,000 motorcyclists nationwide.

"I'd like to know what motivates someone to cut a self-sufficient, popular, successful program that doesn't cost the taxpayers anything."

The success of Maryland's motorcycle safety program is unquestioned, even by its detractors in the legislature. Classes are available at 12 sites around the state between April and October and most sell out in advance.

Students spend about half their time in the classroom and the remainder on a blacktop course riding motorcycles provided by the MVA. The program has only eight state employees; classes are taught by 130 part-time instructors paid $12 an hour.

"Tremendous experience"

"The main thing it did for me is that you can read and have all the experience you want but there's a lot more to think about, things that you have to look out for," said Rick MacInnes of Columbia, the vice president of a construction firm who graduated from a safety class in 1990. "It was a tremendous experience."

The course's 49-page student workbook and other instructional materials are provided by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, an Irvine, Calif.-based private, non-profit organization which receives financial support from motorcycle manufacturers and distributors.

Lessons cover everything from selecting a motorcycle and protective riding gear to handling a bike in the middle of a congested highway or on a blind hill or turn, how to be more

visible on the road or simply how to make a turn.

The program is funded by $5 from the $18.50 annual registration fee assessed motorcycles, $20 from each new Class M license, and $22 from each Class M learner's permit. Its annual budget is $834,000 and its modest headquarters is a wood-frame temporary classroom on the parking lot outside MVA headquarters in Glen Burnie.

"It's been well-accepted by Maryland's motorcyclists and it's got a good national reputation," said MVA Administrator W. Marshall Rickert. "I would have preferred keeping it as it is."

The program's supporters blame Timothy F. Maloney, an influential member of the House of Delegates, for the move to privatize. Delegate Maloney chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee which came up with the idea.

Some believe the action was a rebuke in response to the sometimes heavy-handed tactics of motorcycling interests that angrily fought against a mandatory helmet law.

The law passed anyway and goes into effect Oct. 1.

"I think the people who went down there to lobby were obscene," said Ken Weston, 51, owner of Mountain Road Bike Shop in Pasadena. "The long hair and the earrings . . . the no-helmet types are a farce."

Delegate Maloney denies that the subcommittee's decision had anything to do with the helmet law. Rather, he says, the legislature decided to cut back on the motorcycle program at a time of budget cuts and unpopular tax increases.

Over the past 18 months, more than $1 billion in state spending has been trimmed because of slumping tax revenues generated by an equally droopy economy. One of the victims was driver's education, a $3 million program cut out entirely by the General Assembly in the upcoming budget year.

"In view of the budget crisis, should the state be in the business of providing these courses?" Mr. Maloney asked. "A lot of good programs got dropped this year."

The veteran legislator said he disputes the notion that the program pays for itself.

There is an administrative cost to processing motorcyclists' registrations and licenses that, since the fees go to safety, is subsidized by other drivers, he said.

He and many other legislators also oppose what are known as "dedicated" funds, where revenues are earmarked for certain programs. That kind of structure means that motorcycle safety never has to compete with other worthy efforts within the state Department of Transportation for funding.

"Our feeling is to cut them out entirely next year," Mr. Maloney said.

"At a time when we can't afford to pay for police and teachers and MedEvac helicopters, we can't subsidize people to drive."

Still, cutting the program out could prove costly in human terms. In the past six years, the number of reported motorcycle accidents on Maryland roads has fallen from 1,820 in 1986 to 998 last year, and fatalities involving motorcycle passengers have gone from 82 to 23.

According to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, 42 states offer some form of motorcycle safety program, and most subsidize them with some portion of motorcycle license or registration fees.

"They don't know what they're going to lose," said Bob Ackerman, 34, an electrical engineer who teaches the program in Glen Burnie.

"We're putting people on the street who are a lot safer."

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