Md. motorcycle helmet law causes a dent in statistics

If the motorcycle riders of Maryland can avoid splattering themselves on the asphalt for just another four weeks, we might set a pretty extraordinary record in this state.

I discovered this while calling around recently to find out how effective our 2-year-old mandatory motorcycle helmet law has been.


Last week, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a study showing that after a mandatory helmet law was passed in California, crash fatalities dropped there by more than 37 percent.

And I wanted to know if Maryland was doing better or worse than that.


So I called Nelson Sabatini, Maryland's secretary of health and mental hygiene, who was instrumental in passing the helmet law in 1992.

"Well, states everywhere have discovered one downside to helmet laws," Sabatini said. "Fewer organ donations."

Which was Sabatini's somewhat mordant way of saying we have fewer motorcyclist cadavers around these days to get organs from.

After years of failed attempts, a mandatory helmet law became effective in Maryland on Oct. 1, 1992.

And according to Sabatini's figures, provided by the state police, there were 54 fatal motorcycle crashes in 1992, 42 in 1993 and only 27 through October of this year.

I couldn't find any fatal motorcycle crashes for November in the news clippings, so if we can get through December with no more fatalities, the death toll in Maryland from motorcycle crashes will have decreased from 54 to 27, a whopping 50 percent, in two years.

The figures on accidents are also good.

According to Sabatini, in the 12 months preceding the helmet law, Shock Trauma treated 182 motorcycle crash victims. But in the 12 months following the law's enactment, it treated only 148, a decrease of 19 percent.


Why should you care?

Because a reduction in motorcycle accidents and deaths saves you money.

Studies show that motorcyclists who ride without helmets are twice as likely to sustain head injuries as those who ride with helmets.

In Maryland, long-term hospitalization for these people runs from $146,000 to $460,000 per patient per year.

And -- guess what? -- a lot of motorcyclists don't have that kind of money or that kind of insurance.

So the taxpayers pick up the bills for them.


In 1990, having failed to get a mandatory helmet law passed, the Schaefer administration introduced a bill requiring motorcyclists to carry catastrophic health care insurance to cover their accidents.

But after some motorcyclists lobbied against it, it was defeated.

For years they had opposed a helmet law because they claimed a constitutional right to ride without a helmet, but now they opposed an insurance law because they said it would make riding a motorcycle too expensive.

In other words, they were saying: "We not only have right to ride without a helmet, we have a right to make the taxpayers pay our hospital bills when we crash."

Because the current figures show that both deaths and injuries are now going down, you'd figure that all motorcycle riders would be pleased.

But this March the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee defeated by only one vote an effort to repeal the state's mandatory helmet law.


And Sabatini expects that the repeal attempt will come up again next year.

"The motorcyclists opposed to helmets are a small, but well-organized group," Sabatini said. "They call. They write. They make their presence felt. Ninety-five percent of the people I know are in favor of the helmet law, but they sit around and talk to each other instead of going down to Annapolis and making their feelings known."

The anti-helmet people like to ride around the State House on their cycles and make a lot of noise and say they have a constitutional right to go without a helmet.

And, even though repealing the helmet law would cost the taxpayers millions of dollars and cost the state additional millions in lost federal highway dollars, many legislators are still swayed by the cyclists.

"I suppose the repeal attempt will be an annual event," Sabatini said. "They say they have a constitutional right to ride without a helmet. But I don't think they have a constitutional right to have us pay for the cleanup of their accidents."