Helmet law battle revived


Two years after losing the freedom to ride bareheaded, motorcyclists returned to Annapolis yesterday to renew a battle over helmets that has stretched, on and off, over the past 20 years.

Members of Maryland's largest motorcycle group asked state senators to repeal the law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. Although they found several sympathetic ears on the Judicial Proceedings Committee, they face an immovable opponent in the Governor's Mansion.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer yesterday vowed to veto the repeal if it manages to pass the General Assembly and land on his desk.

"I promise you I will veto the bill. Absolutely!" the governor said. "We're trying to save people's heads from being smashed in."

A governor's veto in the last year of a four-year term -- such as this year -- cannot be overridden by the next legislature. Supporters of Maryland's helmet law, however, hope to put an end to the repeal movement before it gets that far.

They say they have statistics -- and 11 lives -- on their side.

"There are 11 people alive today in the state who wouldn't be here if we had not passed the [helmet law] two years ago," testified Sen. Arthur Dorman, a Democrat from Prince George's County.

Highway deaths among motorcyclists dropped by 11 since the state helmet law took effect, from 54 fatalities in 1991 to 43 last year.

In addition, the number of motorcyclists admitted to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center with serious head injuries decreased by 17 percent, according to testimony by Dr. Richard Alcorta of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems.

The less severe the injury, the less society ends up paying in medical costs for uninsured or under-insured people, helmet law supporters say.

The Maryland motorcycle group, A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments or ABATE, is skeptical of those statistics.

Chuck Blankenship, who has been riding for 28 years, said helmets actually contribute to neck and spine injuries, even if they protect wearers from head injuries. Dr. Alcorta later disputed that claim.

But Mr. Blankenship had another important weapon in his fight for repeal, an argument as appealing to some senators as the open road itself. The issue is one of personal freedom, he said.

The mandatory helmet law violates the freedom of adults to decide for themselves whether or not to strap on a helmet, Mr. Blankenship said.

"I'm a veteran -- I served from 1970 to '74 -- and I'm always concerned about my freedoms being curtailed," he said. "Return our freedom to choose for ourselves."

The General Assembly first enacted a mandatory helmet law in the early 1970s, only to repeal it in 1979. Motorcyclists managed to defeat annual attempts to restore the helmet law until two years ago.

The bikers hope changes in the Senate committee's membership since then will work in their favor this year.

The mandatory helmet law squeaked out of the panel by just one vote in 1992, and two senators who voted for it now serve on other committees.

One of their replacements, Sen. Nancy L. Murphy of Baltimore County, said she might vote to repeal the law because it limits freedom. "I still feel there's a question of having the liberty of doing what you want to," she said.

In the meantime, Governor Schaefer said he remains well aware of motorcyclists' opposition to the helmet law he pushed through in 1992. But he is not impressed.

"I know every six months or so 500 motorcyclists or so ride around the State House. Vrroom vrroom vrroom. The only thing it does is annoy my dog," he said.

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