Motorcycle helmet debate revs up

January 29, 1997


Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS - It was easy for Arnold "TV" Davis and Bob Gearhart to explain why they made the two-hour trip from their Washington County homes to spend a long afternoon in a House of Delegates hearing room.

"Freedom of choice," Gearhart said.

"We want our rights," Davis said.

The issue was whether the state should repeal its 5-year-old motorcycle helmet law, which brought Davis, Gearhart and dozens of other motorcyclists from across the state to an annual ritual in the General Assembly: Liberty-proclaiming motorcyclists versus pro-helmet advocates.

The helmet supporters say they have statistics on their side, showing a decline in motorcycle deaths since the helmet law was enacted in 1992. Without helmets, they say, the chances of serious head injury greatly increases.


"The helmet law is just one sensible way that we can prevent these tragic incidents," said Bill Bronrott, a spokesman for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Motorcyclists and their supporters counter that helmets can impair a biker's hearing and sight.

"We're right on this issue. The helmet does not save lives," Gary "Pappy" Boward, 47, a Smithsburg resident and state director of motorcyclists' rights group ABATE - A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments - told the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee.

For the past few years, politicians have told the riders to take a politically correct low profile in their fight against the helmet law, Gearhart said. No demonstrations, no protests. They also got no results.

"Those days are over," said Gearhart, 45, of Smithsburg, who is director of the Washington County ABATE chapter.

So they came out in numbers this year, filling the committee room with leather jackets with patches, T-shirts and chaps. They even hired a lobbyist to present their case.

The idea, Gearhart said, was to show lawmakers that motorcyclists have become a political force. He said that of the 180 members in his chapter, 90 percent are voters.

"They work for us. We don't work for them," Davis, 45, of Hancock said of the lawmakers.

"If they don't do the job we want, we'll find people that do," he said.

They said the in-your-face style of democracy is working because lawmakers seem to be more attentive to their cause. As for the helmet repeal, they insist they have a pretty good chance of getting it passed.

One thing's for sure: If they don't get their law this year, they'll be back in 1998.

"If I get that helmet off my head, they won't hear me complain for a long time," Gearhart said.

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