Mandatory helmets, insurance rejected for motorcyclists

January 25, 1991|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Separate committees of the General Assembly killed legislation yesterday that would compel Maryland motorcyclists to wear helmets and pay for the cost of the damage if they don't.

The House Judiciary Committee voted down the measure that would have required motorcyclists to wear helmets, settling for this session the issue that tends to bring motorcycle enthusiasts to the capital in large numbers.

In a related action, the Senate Finance Committee summarily dismissed a measure that would have required motorcyclists to obtain catastrophic health insurance.

Both bills were backed by the Schaefer administration, which argued that the costs of high-risk behavior -- in this case, motorcycling -- ought not be borne by the state, particularly in a time of economic difficulty when other health programs are being cut. The Senate committee rejected the arguments by a vote of 11-0.

In the House, Judiciary Committee Chairman John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore County, argued for mandatory helmets by observing that the state has routinely stepped into otherwise private decisions in the interest of public health and safety. The economic aspect of the helmet issue, he said, made the law even more compelling this year.

Bringing the matter to a vote yesterday, he added, put the House on course to break with its tradition of delaying votes on most important matters until later in legislative sessions.

Without contesting the budgetary issues, opponents of the mandatory helmet bill argued that the state legislature was, once again, being asked to "shove something down peoples' throats that they don't want." The legislature has resisted the drive to put helmets on cyclists almost every year for the last decade.

Delegate Kenneth C. Montague, D-Baltimore, said he did not believe the medical cost arguments were sufficiently strong to justify what he called a "paternalistic approach."

Mr. Montague's no-mandatory-helmet argument prevailed as the bill died by a vote of 12-10.

In the related motorcycle insurance issue, proponents of a Department of Health and Mental Hygiene bill said motorcyclists should purchase catastrophic health insurance to save the state and federal governments as much as $9 million a year. This contention ran into skepticism and sharp questioning from the Senate Finance Committee. A similar measure died in a House committee last year.

Nelson J. Sabatini, a deputy secretary of health, told the committee that motorcyclists were involved in accidents at 2.5 times the rate of people in passenger vehicles; that they also were injured at 2.5 times the rate of people motor vehicles and that they died at three times the rate.

The average cost of treating motorcycle injuries, he said, is $23,000 as compared with $4,800 for other vehicle injuries. In addition, a large proportion of these injured persons must be cared for at state expense. Twenty-eight percent of them have no health insurance -- twice the uninsured rate of the general population, Mr. Sabatini said.

He said the insurance would cost between $150 and $450 a year -- but opponents of the measure said it would more likely cost $1,500 a year.

"In these times of severe financial problems," he said, "we are making cuts in services to the poor, the elderly and the disabled. These funds could have helped avert some of these cuts."

But Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly, D-Prince George's, said his committee regarded the bill as "discriminatory" -- targeting just one class of motorists.

Moreover, he said, the committee was not convinced the results would be significant. "The juice just wasn't worth the squeeze," he said.

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