Hard-headed on helmet law -- again Repeal bill re-introduced: An early test of states being responsible on highway safety.


THEY'RE BA-AAACK. The horde of motorcyclists who ride into Annapolis each winter protesting Maryland's motorcycle helmet law have become more expected than snow in February. "I know every [year], 500 motorcyclists or so ride around the State House," former Gov. William Donald Schaefer once complained. "The only thing it does is annoy my dog."

The cyclists have come and gone before, usually turned back by statistics showing a decline in deaths for the years the state's helmet law has been in effect. But this time they have some new juice in their tank. Congress last fall curtailed federal oversight of state highway safety laws. The most pronounced change was the lifting of the national 55 mph speed limit, but the threat of loss of funding for states without mandatory helmet laws was also erased. President Clinton said he was disturbed by the prospect of the 55 mph limit and helmet laws being repealed, but he nevertheless signed the National Highway System Designation Act amid a groundswell of support in Congress to shift responsibility from Washington to the states.

As the bikers would say, here's where the rubber meets the road. Now that Maryland has the authority, will it act responsibly? This is where Gov. Parris N. Glendening, an early advocate of raising the speed limit, can take a stand on highway safety by using his office to strongly defend the helmet law.

Fatalities caused by motorcycle accidents have been halved from 54 in 1992, when the law was enacted, to 27 last year -- even as overall highway fatalities held steady. Medical care, lost productivity and other associated costs have also dropped, from $40 million to $20 million. The rate of severe injuries has been pared substantially, too. And, because helmets are so visible it's an easy violation for police to spot, compliance is near 100 percent. Public mandates to further road safety aren't some ideological assault on the hair-to-the-wind, free spirit of bikers; They have proven their worth in automobiles too, from seat belts to air bags.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings committee today is scheduled to take up Senate Bill 334, which calls for repeal of the helmet law. Certainly, the documented savings in lives and dollars only bolsters the stance of the General Assembly when it created this law.

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