Confrontations between motorcyclists and Maryland legislators have produced some of the General Assembly's more embarrassing moments. Year after year, it seemed that all bikers had to do to squelch any attempt to enact sensible helmet legislation was simply show up in Annapolis. Similar measures -- requiring that motorists wear seat belts or that infants and small children ride in special seats -- are taken for granted. Bikers, however, insist that a helmet requirement would be an infringement of their freedom on the open road.
But freedom carries a price, and this year legislators are being forced to reckon that price in dollars and cents. Given the state's dire financial situation, the bottom-line cost of bikers' freedom is finally putting some starch in legislators' spines. Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee approved a helmet bill by a vote of 14-8. A Senate hearing on helmet legislation is scheduled for this afternoon.
The governor's cost-cutting commission has said the legislation could save the state $1.3 million in health-care costs for uninsured cyclists injured in accidents while not wearing a helmet. Moreover, federal incentives for helmet laws could make an extra $1.4 million available for highway safety grants over the next three years. But without a helmet law, a portion of the state's highway money will be taken away from highway construction and maintenance and directed instead into safety information and education programs.
Bikers will resist the requirement, but the fact remains that unhelmeted cyclists suffer far more serious injuries. True, many motorcycle accidents are caused by automobiles, not by bikers. But that doesn't change the outcome, which can be tragic for bikers and their families.
According to data compiled by the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, during 1987 and 1988 isolated head injuries were 250 percent higher for unhelmeted riders than for those wearing helmets, and overall acute-care costs for unhelmeted and uninsured riders were 300 percent higher.
The Judiciary Committee vote marks a change in attitude among members of that panel, who had bottled up helmet bills in past years. Momentum from that affirmative vote should continue in the Senate hearing. This time around, state legislators should recognize that the small curtailment in freedom for bikers -- no worse than what other motorists live with every day -- is more than offset by the protection that this law would afford not just to the public coffers, but to bikers themselves.