Playing with the Death Count

March 03, 1995

Science lesson: Members of the Maryland General Assembly can repeal highway safety laws. They cannot repeal the laws of physics.

Legislators in the worshipful air of the State House corridors have confused those two principles. Their reckless, libertarian reasoning in favor of raising the 55 mph speed limit in Maryland and undoing the 3-year-old motorcycle helmet law seems to overlook the fact that they're not arguing cold numbers. They're weighing life and death.

Roughly half the number of motorcyclists died or were seriously injured from accidents last year compared to years before helmets became required gear. Because motorcyclists tend to be younger, their long-term disability costs run into millions of dollars. This issue was talked to exhaustion until 1992 when the General Assembly approved the helmet law. Yet now some legislators are angling to repeal the law, revisiting frivolous arguments about freedom on the open road and helmet discomfort. This isn't a debating exercise over naming the state waterfowl. Lives hang in the balance.

That's also the case with the even more popular proposal to raise the speed limit to 65 mph on so-called rural state highways. Both federal studies and common sense indicate that when allowed to drive 65 mph, many more people go 75 mph. The impact of a crash at 65 mph is 40 percent greater than a crash at 55 mph. Supporters of the change, including the Glendening administration, point to the recent reduction of death on our highways. But as a recent story in this newspaper pointed out, many motorists who would have died in accidents prior to air bags are now surviving with lower body damage. Supporters also argue states that raised speed limits have seen a leveling of fatalities after an initial "learning curve." We suspect legislators backing these regressive bills would not relish explaining to a constituent that his or her loved one died for the sake of Maryland's "learning curve."

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