House committee OKs mandatory helmet bill

January 30, 1992|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- A bill requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets is expected to save lives, but the reason it survived its first General Assembly test yesterday was money.

For the first time in a half-dozen years, the House Judiciary Committee gave the bill a thumbs-up -- and by a respectable 14-8 margin.

For years proponents have argued that helmets save lives, but this year they had a new weapon. The federal government is waving financial incentives at states that have mandatory helmet and seat belt laws. Maryland already requires car drivers to buckle up.

In addition, a gubernatorial commission has said the state can save more than $1 million a year by preventing serious head injuries to motorcyclists. The state currently spends that money on medical bills for accident victims who are uninsured or receiving Medicaid.

The financial incentives appealed to some former opponents, who wanted to find ways to save money and avoid new taxes during the state budget crisis.

"We've got to consider the taxpayers, and I'm doing my best to save the taxpayers money," said Del. Richard Matthews, R-Carroll County, as he voted for the bill.

The bill passed "not because they love to save lives. It's because of the pocketbook," said Del. Theodore Levin, D-Baltimore County, who has introduced mandatory helmet bills for the past dozen years.

"The same argument about saving lives has been here for 12 years and that didn't turn anyone [around]," Mr. Levin said. "The dollars turned the vote around."

Gov. William Donald Schaefer also helped. He introduced a helmet bill this year and called up certain committee members to ask for their votes.

Motorcyclists, however, don't believe a helmet law will save the state money.

"We're politically correct this year. Everyone sees [the helmet bill] as a real quick and easy way of saving the state money, without looking into it in-depth," said Debbie Lough, federal liaison for the National Coalition of Motorcyclists. "This is just a Band-Aid approach. It looks good, it's cheap and it's easy."

A helmet law would enable Maryland to qualify for an extra $1.4 million in federal highway safety funds, officials said.

The bill must pass the full House, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and the full Senate before it is enacted. Ms. Lough said motorcyclists will focus their lobbying on senators.

One aspect of the legislation that may spark controversy is a provision allowing police to stop cyclists just because they are not wearing helmets. Some legislators said police should not be able to stop a biker unless he or she is committing another offense. That way, the helmet measure would more closely mirror Maryland's seat belt law, they said.

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