ANNAPOLIS – When state Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. says something has been going on for as long as he can remember, he’s talking about a long, long time. Stone, a Democrat from Eastern Baltimore County, is the General Assembly’s longest serving member, dating back to 1963 and his first and only term in the House of Delegates.
And just about every one of those years – “I may have missed one or two,” Stone says – there has been a bill concerning an issue that will not go away: Should motorcycle riders be forced to wear helmets?
This year is no different. In the latest episode of the ongoing battle between motorcycle riders and the doctors who treat their injuries – some 23 senators have signed on as co-sponsors to a bill that aims to relax the state’s current helmet law, passed in 1992, that requires everyone to wear protective headgear when riding.
Relaxation of the helmet law became possible in 1995, when the federal government stopped requiring states to have mandatory helmet laws in order to receive transportation funding. Legislators introduced bills to relax the current requirement every year from 1996 to 2004, when it was voted out of the Senate committee but stalled in the House.
Before that, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the struggle was a tug of war between the motorcyclists — often in colorful garb and using equally colorful language – demanding the freedom to choose and the medical and law enforcement community – often armed with graphic photos and in equally graphic language – describing the effects the wrong choice can have on the human body.
David McAllister, president of the State Council of Maryland Emergency Nurses Association, told legislators that he has often been the one who has had to deal with the aftermath of a motorcycling accident.
“I have been the one that often explains to the family – your voters – that your loved one died because he or she did not wear a helmet,” he said. “I have been the one that explains to the families that your loved one is a vegetable because your son or daughter did not wear a helmet.”
At the Thursday hearing, motorcyclists nearly filled the hearing room to show their support of the bill. Of the 11 members of the committee, seven are listed as co-sponsors. So if the committee votes on the bill it will probably pass and then go to the Senate floor, said Stone, one of the bill’s co-sponsors.
If so, it won’t be with the support of the committee’s vice chair, Sen. Leo Green, D-Prince George’s, who said he always votes against the bill because of the costs to the taxpayers who often must pick up the tab for medical care of helmet-less motorcyclists who crash.
“It’s not a question of freedom of choice,” he said, “it’s a question of who’s bearing the burden for their freedom of choice.”
During testimony, Bruce Bereano, representing ABATE of Maryland – the state’s largest association of motorcycle riders, said there are 30 states that don’t require adults to wear helmets while riding a motorcycle. Two of those states are neighboring Pennsylvania and Delaware.
Gary “Pappy” Boward, former chairman for ABATE (A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments), said the current law hurts the state as thousands of the 86,000 registered motorcyclists and 219,000 licensed riders in Maryland ride out of state.
“Not ten, not five, not one hundred,” he said, “thousands are leaving this state to go to Pennsylvania and Delaware because each allow their adults to ride with a choice.”
Testifying in opposition to the bill, McAllister used graphic images and strong words to prove his points.
“I am a front line emergency department registered nurse that has seen the blood oozing from every orifice, the intestines leaking out of the stomach and brain matter of your constituents that choose to not wear a helmet,” he told committee members.
McAllister said he was angry that the committee would even consider repealing a law that saves lives.
“If this law is passed,” he said, “Maryland families welcome your resignation because you have failed in your job.” Maryland has required either some or all motorcyclist’s to wear protective headgear since 1968. In 1979, the law was repealed requiring only those under 18 to wear a helmet and then in 1992 the state changed to the current law making it necessary for all “individuals” to wear a helmet.