ANNAPOLIS Lyndon Abell wants to ride his motorcycle to the nearby 7-Eleven, but he’d like to do it without wearing a helmet a violation of state law. Some Maryland legislators say he should have that right.
Seven senators submitted a bipartisan bill to repeal the law requiring all motorcyclists to wear a helmet. Instead, only minors would have to wear the protective headgear.
‘You have to decide that when you are of age, you can make up your own mind,” said Sen. Richard Colburn, R- Dorchester. “We can’t regulate and tell everyone in this country what they can and cannot do with their lives. If these individuals want to ride without a helmet, they should be able to.”
Not everyone in the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee is supportive of the legislation.
“I voted to enact the helmet law so people would have to show some compelling evidence for me to change my mind,” said Sen. Leo Green, D-Prince George’s, vice-chairman of the committee. Green said the law is necessary to keep health care costs down, an argument that supporters of the bill dispute.
Twenty-three jurisdictions, including Virginia and Washington, D.C., require motorcyclists to wear helmets, according to Kathy Van Kleeck, vice president of government relations for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Three states do not have any helmet laws while 25 states have the laws for minors.
“I believe in personal responsibility,” said Abell, parts manager at Harley-Davidson of Annapolis. “While helmets are excellent protective devices, the best protection is a good rider. We need to focus on rider training and rider safety, not forcing them to wear a helmet.”
While motorcycles make up only two percent of all registered vehicles in the United States, motorcyclists are 16 times as likely as car occupants to die in traffic accidents, according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration.
Helmets are only 29 percent effective in preventing fatal injuries but 67 percent effective in preventing brain injuries, according to the federal organization’s statistics.
Maryland passed its helmet law in 1992, Van Kleeck said, and motorcyclists have contested the issue ever since.
In 1997, 24 Maryland motorcyclists died in accidents and 690 were injured, according to Richard Scher, with the Motor Vehicle Administration. Those numbers are down significantly from 1992 when 52 riders died and 1,130 were injured.
Since passage of the law, the number of registered motorcycles in the state has increased from more than 46,700 in 1992 to more than 47,600 in 1997, Scher said.
The statistics don’t deter riders, though.
“Let those who ride decide, like the bumper sticker says,” said Sen. John Astle, D-Anne Arundel, co-author of this year’s legislation. Astle, a motorcycle rider himself, has sponsored legislation to repeal the law consistently since its passing.
Attempts to revoke the law have failed. In every case, the bills have not moved beyond the committees debating them.
This year, however, three of the bill’s senatorial sponsors are on the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which will debate the bill. Of the remaining eight committee votes, only three more are needed to move the issue to full Senate debate.
Sponsors of the bill are optimistic the issue may be heard on the Senate floor this year.
“This would be the first time Judicial Proceedings would hear it,” Colburn, who is on the committee, said. “I think our committee is more conservative which gives (the bill) a chance.”
If the bill is debated on the Senate floor, Astle said he is sure the senators will approve it.
“Every year, the bill gets closer and closer to passing,” said Delegate Louise Snodgrass, R-Frederick, who heard a version of the bill in a House committee last year.
Helmets may save some lives, but the rider should still be allowed to determine his own fate, Abell said, admitting that without the law he still usually would wear a helmet.
“I think it’s a case of the many against the few,” he said. “There are a small number of riders so it’s easy to legislate against them.”