Motorcyclists revive pitch to ditch Md. law requiring helmet use Supporters note moves by Congress to loosen highway safety regulation

February 07, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Motorcyclists rolled into Annapolis yesterday with a new pitch in their annual crusade to repeal Maryland's 4-year-old mandatory helmet law.

When Congress freed states to set their own speed limits last year, it also loosened other highway safety requirements.

No longer does Maryland risk forfeiting federal funds if it doesn't require motorcyclists to wear helmets.

"I'm smart enough to know when to put on a piece of plastic," Gary Boward of Hagerstown, executive director of ABATE, a motorcycle group, testified at a hearing yesterday. "Accidents are not prevented by motorcycle helmets."

Officials oppose change

But representatives of police, medical organizations, car insurance companies and the State Highway Administration told members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that the state's "common sense" helmet law has saved lives and reduced injuries to those involved in motorcycle accidents.

The number of motorcycle fatalities has fallen from 54 in 1992 to 27 last year, while the costs associated with motorcycle deaths have dropped from $40 million to $20 million over that same period, according to highway administration statistics.

Fatalities have decreased

"There's no question that fatalities have dropped," said Dr. Richard L. Alcorta, medical director for the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems. "We're down to an all-time low."

Motorcyclists contended that may be because the law has caused people to ride their motorcycles less often. Legislation proposed by Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Carroll County Republican, would repeal the helmet requirement for all riders except minors.

The bill's supporters complained yesterday that sorting through the various types of helmets available today has made it difficult to abide by the law.

They pointed out that state transportation officials were supposed to compile a list of acceptable helmets and have not done so.

That revelation clearly angered some senators, who questioned how the state could expect motorcyclists to comply with a law that state government doesn't follow.

"It's ludicrous," Sen. Edward Middlebrooks, an Anne Arundel Republican, told state highway officials. "You've had four years. If you're not going to abide by the law, why should they?"

Possible legal entanglements

Elizabeth L. Homer, deputy administrator of the highway agency, said officials were concerned about the legal entanglements that might arise from trying to list the thousands of models of helmets.

Besides, the law requires only that helmets meet federal standards, and that can usually be determined by looking for a U.S. Department of Transportation or "DOT" sticker on the back of the helmet, she said.

A spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening said the governor opposes the repeal.

Administration officials pointed out that taxpayers often bear much of the cost when a motorcyclist is seriously injured in a crash.

"We can't afford this little bit of freedom for motorcycle riders anymore," Ms. Homer said. "It still makes sense to have a motorcycle helmet law even without the federal hammer."

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