Helmets would no longer be mandatory for most motorcycle riders in Maryland under a bill expected to be heard in a state Senate committee Tuesday.
Senate bill 237 would make motorcyclists and their passengers exempt from wearing a helmet if the motorcycle operator is 21 or older, has at least two years of riding experience and has completed an approved safety course.
The legislation, in its current language, has been introduced in each session of the General Assembly since 2016 but has failed to advance out of committee each session. Last session, the bill failed to advance out of the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings committee.
The bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Michael Hough, R-Frederick and Carroll counties, told Capital News Service before the hearing that he is hopeful the bill can advance to a vote on the Senate floor. Hough noted the bill is also supported by the chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, Sen. William “Will” Smith Jr., D-Montgomery.
Although he said he doesn’t ride a motorcycle, Hough said he agrees with supporters of the legislation who argue that it should be the rider’s choice to wear a helmet, and that helmets do not prevent motorcycle crashes.
“It’s not the role of government to protect you from yourself. The role of government is to protect you from doing harm to others,” Hough said. “As an adult in this country, you should have the freedom to make decisions like this if you want.”
In the past, the legislation has been opposed by AAA Mid-Atlantic, the Maryland Trauma Center Network, the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems and the Maryland Association of County Health Officers, among others.
The American Motorcycle Association, the country’s largest motorcycle rights advocacy group, supports voluntary use of helmets.
“Some view the helmet solely as a mechanical safety device, similar to a seat belt,” according to a position statement on the group’s website. “Many motorcyclists view the helmet as an accessory of personal apparel, and its use or non-use is connected with a chosen lifestyle and their right as adults to make their own decisions.”
Bob Spanburgh, executive director at ABATE of Maryland — the state’s largest motorcycle advocacy group — told Capital News Service before the hearing that his organization isn’t taking a position on wearing a helmet, but he said motorcyclists should get to choose for themselves.
“It’s our guiding principle,” Spanburgh said. “We don’t advocate for not wearing helmets, we advocate for the ability to choose whether we want to wear them or not.”
Spanburgh said his group has also advocated for other motorcycle-related legislation, including bills that would have allowed lane-splitting and would have prohibited residents from blowing yard waste into the street — creating potentially dangerous conditions for riders.
Spanurgh said sometimes motorcyclists’ rights can become an afterthought for some people.
“I don’t think it’s intentional,” he said. “If you don’t ride, I don’t think you really think about it.”
In a statement to Capital News Service, AAA Mid-Atlantic indicated it would once again oppose the legislation, citing state motorcycle crash statistics.
According to data released in April by the state’s Motor Vehicle Administration Highway Safety Office, the state has averaged 1,466 motorcycle-involved crashes a year over the last five years with an average of 69 fatal crashes per year.
“Because serious head injury is common among fatally injured motorcyclists, helmet use is essential,” wrote Ragina C. Ali, public and government affairs manager at AAA Mid-Atlantic, in a statement Monday. “We oppose repealing the helmet law, as it weakens existing traffic safety laws and puts motorcyclists at a greater risk of injury or a traffic fatality.”
Maryland’s current motorcycle helmet requirement — which requires all riders and passengers to wear the protective headgear — became law on Oct. 1, 1992.
According to a legislative analysis of the bill, as of December, 19 states and Washington, D.C., require all motorcyclists to wear helmets, while 28 states require only certain riders to wear helmets.
Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas have exemptions for riders similar to those proposed in the Maryland legislation, according to the analysis.
If the legislation passes, Spanburgh said, he thinks about half of the state’s riders will continue to wear helmets. Spanburgh, who said he has been riding on the streets since 1983, probably won’t be one of them.
“Honestly, I would more frequently not wear one than wear one,” he said.
By Jeff Barnes