With rhetoric as souped up as their engines, a contingent of leather-clad lobbyists rallied against Maryland's motorcycle helmet law yesterday, roaring into Annapolis with a noisy but peaceful protest.
About 300 motorcyclists assembled first at the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds to hear speeches blasting both the law that requires helmets and the man they hold responsible -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
"We know he did this dirty work by himself," said Sally Bruce, a director of ABATE of Maryland, a motorcycle lobbying group that fought the helmet law and organized yesterday's event.
"I want to welcome you all to the not-so-free police state of Maryland," added Michael Lewis of Leonardtown, another motorcyclist and speaker.
Then the group rode mostly with helmets under state police escort to the State House, where bikers circled the building and a few made obscene gestures.
There were no citations issued to the half-dozen or so riding without helmets, despite their open defiance of the law and the presence of the state troopers.
"People are really angry about this law," said Ms. Bruce of Frederick, who said the group has 2,000 members statewide and has made the law's repeal one of its primary goals.
But she and other helmet-law opponents say their biggest obstacle will be the stereotypes they face because of the accouterment of their lifestyle -- the black leather, shiny chrome and renegade image of "bikers" -- and the failure of politicians to take them seriously.
"When I go to Annapolis, I do not dress like this," said Michael Sage, a civilian machinist for the Navy who lives in Rockville and was dressed in yesterday's uniform of black leather. "I wear a coat and tie in Annapolis, you have to."
"For me, this is a voters' registration drive," he said.
It didn't look like one. Mostly, there were bikers with black leather and their Yamahas, BMWs and Harley-Davidsons -- lots of Harley-Davidsons.
"You might look at these people, and some of them might look a little outlandish. But I grew up in the '60s, and that was an era when a lot of people looked outlandish," said Giff Nickol, a 19-year Baltimore City firefighter who lives in Bel Air.
"There's this image people have of bikers," he said.
Petty Officer Joseph Fuller, an Indiana native stationed at the Naval Academy, confessed to having bought his first motorcycle -- a Yamaha -- just two months ago. "Does that make me a biker? I don't know," he said.
Michael Wagner, a motorcycle rider since the mid-1970s, said he has no problem with the moniker.
He wore a helmet the first two years he rode, but said he rode bareheaded one day and enjoyed the wind through his hair so much that he often went bareheaded after that -- until helmets became mandatory a year ago.
"The way I see it, it's a matter of freedom of choice," said Mr. Wagner, a 43-year-old electrician from Churchville, as he stood in black leather chaps near his gleaming, 1989 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide.
The law, which took effect last October, specifies a $50 fine for any motorcyclist caught without a helmet.
Similar laws have been passed in 25 states and have been advocated by health and medical authorities because they say helmets cut down on serious head injuries that are often life-threatening, permanently disabling and expensive -- as well as on the costs for long-term care often borne by the government.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, per mile, a motorcyclist is about 20 times more likely to die in a crash than is an automobile occupant, and head injury is the leading cause of death in motorcycle accidents.
But the cyclists at yesterday's rally said the law is a condescending mandate that infringes on their freedom of choice.
"When you substitute someone's personal decision-making with the heavy hand of government, it's just plain wrong," Mr. Nickol said.