Schaefer backs helmet law for motorcyclists Measure likely to pass next year because of potential savings

December 29, 1991|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun Peter Jensen of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

ANNAPOLIS -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer, adopting an old idea in a new effort to save money, has decided to ask the General Assembly to require all motorcycle riders in Maryland to wear helmets.

Mr. Schaefer's aides say the proposal not only will prevent injuries and deaths, but also will save scarce funds while helping Maryland qualify for new federal highway safety grants available only to states with both mandatory seat belt and motorcycle helmet laws.

Even though similar bills have been killed repeatedly in the legislature, Mr. Schaefer decided to throw the authority of his office behind a mandatory helmet law after his Commission on Efficiency and Economy in Government issued a preliminary report last week that, among other proposals, said it was good idea. Maryland already has a mandatory seat belt law.

The commission estimated a helmet law could save $1.3 million a year now spent on accident victims either covered by Medicaid or who have no health insurance. Hospitalization for long-term head injury victims can cost between $146,000 and $460,000 per patient per year, and a helmet law that saved only 10 victims a year from serious head injuries could save more than $4 million, according to the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems.

Motorcyclists, who in past years have often circled the State House on their bikes and crowded committee hearing rooms to protest mandatory helmet bills, already sense that the financial argument could be unbeatable.

"I would say the opposition will be as strong as in the past, but a tad more fatalistic," predicted Jerry Smith of Burtonsville, editor and publisher of the Motorcycle Times, a bimonthly magazine for LTC riders in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Walt Leach, manager of Pete's Cycle on Harford Road in Baltimore, said he believed the decision on helmets should be left to individual riders, but agreed with Mr. Smith that the potential savings may prove irresistible to lawmakers. "When there's money involved, it probably will pass this time," he said. "With everyone cutting back on state funding, it'll give it the push."

David S. Iannucci, the governor's chief legislative officer, said Mr. Schaefer had already decided to sponsor a helmet bill before the new federal highway and transit bill was enacted. A helmet bill, he said, was consistent with previous positions the governor has taken on safety topics such as seat belts, child safety seats and the 55 mph speed limit.

But the incentives in the federal highway bill add ammunition to the governor's case, Mr. Iannucci said.

Congress has offered $17 million in grants over the next three years to states that have both mandatory seat belt and helmet laws. The money is to be used for safety programs. But there is a catch.

To qualify for grants in the second year of the program (fiscal year 1993), states must prove that three out of every four motorcycle riders are wearing helmets, and that half of automobile drivers are wearing seat belts. By fiscal year 1994, states must show that 85 percent of the motorcyclists are wearing helmets, and that 70 percent of the drivers are buckling up.

States that do not have both mandatory seat belt and helmet laws by fiscal year 1994 face the diversion of 1.5 percent of their highway construction funds into highway safety programs.

"That's quite a financial incentive for states, especially in these times," said Mr. Smith.

"Most of strongly anti-helmet groups in the state are pretty much of the opinion that the helmet law is going to go through," he acknowledged. "I expect they will fight it as strongly as in the past but to no avail."

Already, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, where mandatory helmet bills have died repeatedly in past years, said he thinks the governor's sponsorship may be the push the legislation needs.

"I thought I was going to get it out of committee last year," Delegate John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore County, said of last session's 14-12 defeat. "I think with the governor's help and a little more pressure, it will come out of committee."

Delegate Theodore Levin, D-Baltimore County, has long been pushing for a mandatory helmet law, often appearing before committees with an egg carton, which he either drops or smashes to illustrate the protective value of helmets.

"I've been doing battle on this for 12 years. If it passes with [the governor's] name on it, I'm not going to be offended," he said.

It will be ironic if the new federal highway law helps bring back a mandatory helmet law in Maryland, because a change in federal law prompted the repeal of Maryland's old mandatory helmet law in 1977.

In 1976, Congress ended its requirement that federal highway funds be withheld from states without mandatory helmet laws, and Maryland and 25 other states immediately responded by weakening or repealing their helmet laws. Maryland now requires helmets only for riders under 18.

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