Motorcyclist goes head to head with MVA Helmet law foe takes his battle to court

December 09, 1997|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Five bandannas, three soft welder's caps, a Santa stocking cap and a Harley baseball cap, all with chin straps, form some of the "protective headgear" favored by a St. Mary's County motorcyclist.

What he puts on his head while motorcycling is a matter of constitutional import to William "Mike" Lewis, a crusader against helmet laws. As the state sees it, he is making a mockery of the law. As the Maryland Court of Appeals sees it, Lewis has raised a legal question.

The state's highest court will hear arguments today.

Lewis, who figures he has collected as many as nine tickets for helmet law violations, takes issue with the way the law it is written. The law says motorcyclists must wear "protective headgear" and refers to the MVA's publishing a list of approved headgear. But there is no list.

In 1995, Lewis filed a civil challenge to the law in St. Mary's County, arguing that if the Motor Vehicle Administration won't produce a list of approved headgear, the public has no way of knowing what headgear is approved.

"The point of this is that the state should live up to the laws that they want to enforce," said Terrence M. Nolan, one of Lewis' attorneys.

In February, St. Mary's District Judge C. Clarke Raley, sitting as a circuit judge, agreed.

The state appealed, contending that the suit was a ruse by a small fraction of the 150,000 motorcycle license holders in the state aimed at evading the helmet law passed in 1970.

Having failed to stop the General Assembly in 1992 from extending the law to cover all adults and unable to persuade legislators to repeal the law, those motorcyclists are turning to the courts.

One of Lewis' lawyers is lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, who represents ABATE (A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments), a group opposed to the helmet law. Bereano does not represent ABATE in the case, but Lewis and Nolan are members, and ABATE stands "100 percent behind them," said Gary R. Boward, ABATE's executive director.

Motorcyclists who have used Lewis' argument about the list after being ticketed for helmet law violations often have successfully contested the $60 maximum fine for riding without a helmet. Charges have been dropped or dismissed in Anne Arundel, Frederick, Montgomery, St. Mary's, Washington and other counties.

Lewis said all those who have followed his advice have beaten their tickets. That amounts to a handful of motorcyclists, but the strategy has spread.

For $20, Nolan, a former instructor in the MVA's motorcycle safety course, will send his do-it-yourself kit on how to challenge the helmet law. He has had a handful of buyers.

State efforts to draft a headgear list failed because there are thousands of helmet models. Maryland officials say no list is needed because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has an approval system. Manufacturers label helmets "DOT" to certify that they meet the administration's standards.

State lawyers say complicated federal technical standards are difficult for average readers to understand but that it is easy to understand that a DOT label means approved headgear.

"The statute basically says that the MVA is not in the business of approving helmets," MVA Administrator Anne S. Ferro said.

Lewis says the safety administration's publications say numerous DOT-labeled helmets failed the agency's 1994 crash tests.

The state and the riders say that publishing a list would invite lawsuits from victims of motorcycle crashes, their families and manufacturers left off a list.

State officials argue that Lewis has no standing to challenge the helmet law. A citizen may challenge a law only if it intrudes upon a fundamental constitutional liberty, and riding a motorcycle without a helmet on public highways is not one, they say.

Nor is the law vague, officials say, because "protective headgear" has a common-sense meaning that has resulted in near 100 percent compliance with the law.

Pub Date: 12/09/97

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