Uneasy riders

March 01, 2005

UNTIL THE mattress-paved highway or the skull-mounted airbag hits the market, helmets are pretty much the only option for keeping motorcyclists safe from brain damage. It's really this simple: Riders who don't wear helmets are far more likely to suffer a serious head injury in a crash. So we're mystified to learn that the Maryland General Assembly is seriously considering abolishing the state's mandatory helmet law for anyone 21 or older. Last year, the very same proposal passed the Senate. This year, the bill has attracted a huge number of co-sponsors in the House. What's next on the legislature's anti-safety agenda? A repeal of speed limits? Optional brakes?

If Maryland lawmakers want to know what happens when a state repeals a mandatory helmet law, they need look no farther than Louisiana, where motorcyclists got a helmet requirement repealed in 1999. In 1998, Louisiana recorded 35 motorcycle deaths. Five years later, the number of deaths had climbed to 79, a 125 percent increase. Why? Because when helmets were mandatory, nearly all riders wore them. When they became optional, only about one in three people did.

Louisiana eventually got its fill of dead motorcyclists. The state reinstated its helmet law in August.

Opponents of Maryland's mandatory helmet law argue that helmets provide inadequate protection and that they reduce peripheral vision. And while it's true that helmets are not a safety panacea (neither is the seat belt), medical studies have shown over and over again that wearing a helmet helps prevent head and neck injuries. Accident studies have also shown that helmet-related problems with peripheral vision are rarely, if ever, a factor in a crash.

Motorcyclists claim that a helmet should be a matter of choice. They say they know the dangers and can make an informed decision. It's a "get government off the backs of people" argument. Forget that it's a reckless decision; it also carries unfortunate consequences for everyone else. When a motorcyclist is seriously hurt, who pays the bill? Nearly half of motorcycle accident victims have no health insurance whatsoever. It's expected that repealing Maryland's helmet law would cost Medicaid millions of dollars, and it's not hard to see why: Caring for a single brain-damaged individual in an in-patient setting can cost $120,000 per year.

Motorcyclists have a significant presence in Annapolis. They've even engaged high-powered lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano to represent their cause. But for all their protests and pleas, the motorcyclists still can't demonstrate any compelling reason to rescind the mandatory helmet law. Sorry, but feeling the wind in one's hair doesn't cut it.

Driving is a privilege, not a right. We balance that privilege with certain responsibilities -- learning the rules of the road, insuring the vehicle, regulating speed. Helmets save lives. Allowing motorcyclists to go without them would cause more deaths. Maryland shouldn't have to go through Louisiana's experience to prove that again.

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