U.S. funds may push helmet bill Federal program requires helmets for motorcyclists.

January 28, 1992|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- Last April, Baltimore City firefighter Ronald Biddinger went for a ride on a motorcycle. For the first time ever, his wife said, he didn't wear a helmet.

He had an accident and received severe head injuries. Now he can't walk or fight fires. He's in a hospital rehabilitation ward.

"He says he loves me, but his life's a burden and he wants to die," Linda Biddinger told the House Judiciary Committee last night as she urged the General Assembly to pass a law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets.

Proponents of the legislation believe they may have a winner during the 1992 General Assembly, even though the measure has met with defeat in Annapolis year after year. The difference now may not be suffering, but money.

"This year there's a new ingredient in the mix -- the federal road money," said committee Chairman John S. Arnick, D-Balto. Co.

A new federal program provides financial incentives to states with mandatory helmet and seat belt laws. Maryland already requires car drivers to buckle up.

Without a helmet law, state officials say, Maryland would see $2.3 million of its federal road construction and maintenance money diverted into safety programs in fiscal 1995 and $4.6 million in fiscal 1996.

Proponents also say that Maryland could qualify for an extra $1.4 million in federal highway safety funds if it requires helmets.

Twenty-four states currently require all motorcyclists to wear helmets, according to Steve Larsen, a lobbyist for the governor.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer put his weight behind the legislation after his commission on efficiency in government said a helmet law would save the state $1.3 million a year. That money now is spent on motorcycle accident victims who have Medicaid coverage or no health insurance at all.

More than 200 bikers, safety officials and others packed a hearing on the legislation last night.

Motorcycle enthusiasts contend that estimates of cost savings have been inflated by people who want "to curtail the freedoms of a part of society that is perhaps a little different from their own," said Chuck Blankenship, executive director of A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments.

His group of motorcyclists, called ABATE of Maryland, opposes the helmet bill.

Helmets block peripheral vision and impair hearing, said Baltimore resident Charles Sullivan, who has been riding motorcycles for 26 years.

The House committee may vote on the legislation as early as this week, and many legislators say it has a good chance of passing.

Congress has offered $17 million in grants for safety programs during the next three years to states that have both mandatory seat belt and helmet laws.

To qualify for the money in the second year of the program (fiscal year 1993), states must prove that 75 percent of the motorcyclists are wearing helmets and half of the car drivers are wearing seat belts. The following year, the states must prove that 85 percent of the motorbike riders are wearing helmets and 70 percent of the drivers are buckling up.

States without both mandatory seatbelt and helmet laws by fiscal 1994 could see 1.5 percent of their highway construction funds funneled into safety programs.

The state also could save money spent on medical care for motorcycles riders who sustain serious head injuries while not wearing a helmet, proponents of the bill say.

A helmet law that saved 10 people a year from severe head injuries could save more than $4 million, according to the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems.

Motorcyclists, however, testified that faulty data have skewed the statistics on medical care for such accident victims.

They also said that such care makes up only a tiny fraction of the money the state spends on medical care for those who can't afford it.

Mr. Schaefer, joined by emergency room physicians and others, plans to make a pitch for the bill at a news conference at the State House today.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee has scheduled a hearing on the helmet legislation Thursday.

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