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Ready for real freedom?

February 04, 1997

Unless your goal is making more organs available for transplants, the easiest bill to vote against in the 1997 session of the Maryland General Assembly should be the one that would repeal the law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. We will, however, back the repeal if the sponsors will agree to a compromise, which we'll describe shortly.

Let's look at the facts. In 1992, the year the helmet law was first passed, 54 motorcyclists were killed. Last year, it was just 26. Now considering there are now 189,000 licensed motorycle operators in the state, the number of facatlities seems small. But there are physical and financial costs those figures don't reflect.

First, the physical costs: Even though it's the law, not all Maryland motorcyclists use helmets. At the Adams-Cowley Shock Trauma Center, a Maryland facility specializing in head and spinal injuries, motorcycle crash victims who didn't wear helmets died in 7.4 percent of the cases. Without helmets, however, the death rate dropped to just 1.3 percent. Non-users sustained major brain injuries in 30 percent of the cases, as opposed to an 11 percent injury rate for helmet wearers.

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Then there's the financial cost. According to a 1994 study in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, it cost $15,528 to treat motorcycle crash victims who'd been spared head injuries. When head injuries were involved, the average jumped to $43,214.

Who pays for this? Insurance companies pay, then "share" care and rehabilitation costs with other policyholders. The taxpayers also pay, to support trauma centers and local fire/rescue companies. Since the helmet law was passed, these costs have dropped from $40 million to $19 million, according to a group called Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

In an effort to keep them down without infringing on anyone's personal freedom, we offer this compromise: We'll back repeal if helmet-less motorcyclists agree to sign a waiver absolving the state trauma centers of the cost of treating their head injuries. After all, if you want to be truly free, why should everyone else have to maintain your safety net?

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