Health and safety concerns, not budgetary savings, ought to be the motivating factors for requiring all adult motorcycle riders in Maryland to wear helmets. But with the state's budget shortfall approaching $1 billion, it is the dollars and cents aspect that seems to be swaying legislators.
For the last 15 years, motorcyclists have defeated every attempt to force them to wear safety helmets. They call it freedom of choice. Medical experts call it sheer stupidity. And budget analysts call it a raid on the public treasury.
Last year, motorcyclists even crushed an administration plan to force bikers to take out catastrophic health insurance so the state and hospitals wouldn't have to foot the bill for injured bikers who don't wear helmets and don't have insurance.
The rationale for mandatory helmets for adult bikers is persuasive. Riding a motorcycle is a high-risk activity. Bikers are twice as likely to be involved in accidents as occupants of passenger vehicles. Without helmets on, motorcyclists are far more likely to sustain serious head injuries from accidents.
Officials at the Shock Trauma Center have documented the results. In 1990, hospital costs for the 170 motorcyclists who did not wear helmets in accidents was $30,000 per accident. In the 116 motorcycling accidents where helmets were worn, the cost of care was only $10,000 per accident.
All too often, the state ends up paying the bills. Two years ago, state taxpayers had to shell out $1.3 million for injured motorcyclists who didn't have insurance or were eligible for Medicaid. Bikers with severe head injuries require over $60,000 in care at state-financed hospitals each year.
The Governor's Commission on Efficiency and Economy in Government says taxpayers could save this $1.3 million by forcing bikers to wear helmets. Hospitals also would save millions in uncompensated care for injured bikers. And the state would avoid losing federal highway funds if it put a helmet law on the books.
Any motorcyclist who doesn't wear a helmet is putting his or her safety at risk. The state now requires car drivers to protect themselves with seat belts, youngsters to be placed in safety seats, and teen-agers on motorcycles to wear helmets. There is no reason why adults shouldn't be required to make similar safety concessions. For once, legislators should stand up to the biker groups when they rally in Annapolis. A helmet law makes good sense, and could save taxpayers some cents, too.