Barring roadblocks, House bills could improve transportation safety

The Baltimore Sun

Every year, lawmakers come to Annapolis brimming with ideas to make our roads just a little bit safer. Some of them are sound and logical. Some of them are well-intentioned but harebrained schemes. Most of them get a few minutes in the spotlight and then never see the light of day.

Last week, a House of Delegates committee held hearings on a few of the less-publicized bills intended to promote transportation safety. Some of them had a great deal of merit and could make it into law. Others are sound proposals that are destined to be snuffed out in a late-night committee vote. Others deserve to be mercifully put to sleep.

If you watch the General Assembly long enough, you can get a pretty good sense of what legislators - particularly the all-important committee chairmen - think of a bill as it is being heard. And you learn to recognize which opposition is the kiss of death. So here are a few of the proposals with an assessment of their chances:

HB67: This bill, by Dels. Brian Feldman and Bill Bronrott, both Montgomery County Democrats, would fill a gap in Maryland law by requiring drivers to signal a lane change. Thought that was already the law? Think again. The sponsors and AAA Mid-Atlantic said they were surprised to learn that Maryland stands alone among states in making such signals optional. The bill had no opponents and all the right support.

Prospects: Unless the sponsors have mortal enemies in the wrong places, the bill should fly.

HB187: Del. Tanya Shewell, a Carroll County Republican, wants to require helmets for bicyclists and operators of mopeds and motor scooters. She brought supporters from the medical profession and the Maryland Department of Disabilities. And she brought real people with a tragic story to tell.

Brianne Masilek, 16, told lawmakers about the death in August of her cousin, 17-year-old Nicholas Kordell, who was riding a moped without a helmet when he was hit by a car and thrown over the handle bars. He died after four days in the hospital with massive head trauma.

Brianne did a wonderful job speaking up for her cousin. Other advocates made an impressive case that these vehicles' operators should be held to the same requirements as motorcyclists.

But members of the House Environmental Matters Committee gave the bill a lukewarm reception. Some voiced concerns about how police would enforce it given that riders of these vehicles don't have to be licensed.

"If it's a law, we want to enforce it," said Del. Rudolph Cane, a Salisbury Democrat. "Until vehicles have to be registered, we can't do hardly anything to help." Translation: He's against it, and he's a senior Democrat. Shewell's a far-from-senior member of the minority. And legislative committees are quite resistant to tales of tragedy.

Prospects: Slim to middling.

HB129: For some reason, horses fall under the transportation article of Maryland law, so Del. Joseline Pe?a-Melnyk's bill to require helmets for horseback riders under 18 on public property was heard with this bunch.

The Prince George's Democrat put on a strong case for the dangers of getting aboard an unpredictable 1,000-pound beast with the ability to throw its mount high in the air. A pair of equestrian enthusiasts relayed their experiences and endorsed the bill. They convinced me that any rider who would get on a horse without a helmet is showing a distinct similarity to the hindquarters of the ridden.

If Pe?a-Melnyk were trying to apply this requirement to all ages, it would likely sink like a stone. But Maryland legislators tend to be protective of children, who can't vote against them for doing so.

Prospects: Good in committee but could go down on the House floor or in the Senate. It's an easy idea to ridicule if you haven't heard the testimony.

HB130: In a session where any bill that costs money looks like road kill, Pe?a-Melnyk has come up with one that could actually make money for the state by addressing a widely acknowledged public nuisance and safety hazard. Anywhere but Annapolis, it would probably be a slam dunk.

The bill would let county and municipal workers remove patently illegal road signs that clutter the right of way of our state highways. It would also let the State Highway Administration and local governments bill persistent scofflaws to recover some of the cost of removing their ugly and driver-distracting signs.

So what's the problem? Well, some lawmakers hate on sight any bill that might produce money for the government - even if it's coming from lawbreakers and going to fix highways. Others worry that it could empower state highway workers to remove their political signs from private property. (Legislators come alive at the hint of a threat to their signs.)

Prospects: Grim if those lawmakers read this column. If not, it's got a fighting chance.

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