Helmet bill passes House but could fly off course in Senate

February 05, 1992|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun Laura Lippman of the Annapolis Bureau contributed to this article.

ANNAPOLIS -- A bill that would require motorcyclists to wear helmets in Maryland swept through the House of Delegates yesterday, but it faces a rougher ride in the Senate.

Soon after the House overwhelmingly approved the Schaefer administration bill, a key senator cautioned that success in the Senate is by no means assured.

"A lot of people thought it's a done deal, and it's not a done deal. I haven't made up my mind," said Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, the conservative chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. He said the committee plans to vote on the measure next week.

"I'm not sure how the committee will go," said Vice Chairman Norman R. Stone Jr., D-Baltimore County.

The bill's supporters, who include safety, insurance and medical groups, are lobbying hard for the measure this year.

"I'm not going to tell you we have all the votes [we need]. We're working on it," said Judith L. Stone, a safety advocate and member of the Maryland Motorcycle Helmet Coalition.

Although it has died in committee for years, the helmet bill passed the House yesterday by a 103-29 vote. It would allow police to pull over cyclists not wearing helmets, and violators would be subject to a $50 fine.

The legislation, which picked up Gov. William Donald Schaefer's support this year, actually would restore a helmet requirement that Marylandhad until 1979.

Under pressure from motorcycle groups, the legislature repealed the helmet requirement once Congress stopped threatening to withhold federal funds from states that didn't have helmet laws.

Federal money may be the difference again this year. The government is now offering financial incentives to states with mandatory helmet and seat belt laws, and Maryland already requires drivers to buckle up.

A gubernatorial commission also argued that a helmet law would save Maryland more than $1 million a year.

The state spends that much on medical bills for motorcycle accident victims who are uninsured or receiving Medicaid, the commission said.

One chief supporter of the helmet bill downplayed the financial incentives during floor debate.

"It's a good safety feature," said Del. John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore County, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "Yes, there's some money involved, but that is the least important aspect."

But Del. Theodore Levin, D-Baltimore County, a co-sponsor and longtime helmet proponent, said the measure is doing better in this tight-budget year because it saves money. "We're fighting to save pennies this year," he said.

The bill's opponents said the issue should not be saving money but preserving the freedom of adults to decide for themselves whether to wear helmets.

"I feel very strongly on the issue of choice," said Del. Dana L. Dembrow, D-Montgomery. "This is a question of whether Big Brother is going to tell people what's good for them."

Mr. Dembrow said he doubted legislators would look as favorably on a bill restricting the "freedoms" of accountants. The helmet bill may reflect "class discrimination" against people who "dress differently" by wearing long hair and leather jackets, he said.

Motorcyclist Don Moats, an Indian Head resident who wears leathers and was watching the vote, said he does not need the government telling him what to do.

"I'm a vet. I don't need to hear that," he said.

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