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MOTORCYCLE SAFETY. Debate over mandatory helmet laws revs up in two dozen states. Helmet backers add new wrinkle - costs to public of injury care

For some, it is a lifesaver that should be required for any rider on two-wheeled or all-terrain motorized vehicles. For others, it is a questionable accessory that diminishes the enjoyment of motorcycle riding and should be left to individual discretion. At issue is the motorcycle helmet. In at least 24 states bills have been introduced this year affecting the nation's estimated 10 million motorcyclists, and whether they should be required to wear a helmet.

A lack of consensus on the issue is reflected in the fact that about as many states are considering repealing existing helmet requirements as those considering enactment of such laws.

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Opponents of mandatory helmet laws say individuals, and especially adults, should have the right to choose whether or not to use a helmet. But supporters of the requirements say society has a responsibility to protect lives. And a growing number of advocates say states and localities should be spared the financial burden of caring for motorcycle accident victims whose injuries might have been less severe if a helmet had been worn.

Legislatures in Texas, California, Illinois, Maryland, and Ohio are among those considering mandatory helmet laws, while Pennsylvania, Florida, Missouri, Massachusetts, and Tennessee are among the states where proposed bills would weaken or repeal such laws.

The Motorcycle Industry Council, an organization of motorcycle manufacturers and suppliers located in Costa Mesa, Calif., has come out in favor of helmet laws within individual states. ``The image of motorcycling needs to be improved, quite frankly,'' says Keith VanHarte, an MIC vice-president.

But in Massachusetts, where a mandatory seat belt law was repealed by voters last November, a move is on to limit the state's mandatory helmet law to cover only minors.

``A helmet might be an inconvenience, but at the same time it saves lives,'' says Bill Sarpalius, a Texas state senator from Amarillo, who adds that a helmet saved him when he flipped a four-wheeler he was driving last year. The Texas Senate last week passed a bill strengthening a current helmet requirement for minors to include all riders. The bill is now in the House.

Mr. Sarpalius's position is supported by the Texas Medical Association, which estimates that more than 1,000 motorcycle deaths during the past decade in Texas could have been prevented if the riders had worn helmets. The TMA bases its estimate on the fact that motorcycle deaths have increased by more than 50 percent since 1977, when a helmet law was in effect.

Helmet proponents say Texas taxpayers pay millions of dollars each year to care for head injuries alone that could have been avoided, or minimized, with a helmet. ``Our [publicly supported] hospitals are getting stuck with a lot of costs,'' adds Sarpalius, ``and I think that anytime we can do something to help them out, we should.''

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Opponents acknowledge that the issue of public financial burden is the catalyst for this year's flurry of mandatory helmet laws, but they maintain the argument is unfair and singles out motorcyclists for mounting indigent health care costs.

``It sounds real good to say, `These guys want to ride free, but then they end up in state-supported hospitals,''' says Jim Bensberg, legislative affairs specialist with the American Motorcyclist Association in Westerville, Ohio. ``But when you look at public health care, this is just a tiny, tiny fraction.'' He says that motor vehicle accidents accounted for about 1 percent of the country's $387 billion health care bill last year, and that motorcycle accidents accounted for less than 10 percent of motor vehicle accidents.

``I think we can safely say that motorcycle accidents account for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of total health care costs,'' says Mr. Bensberg, ``but yet we're being singled out because we're highly visible.''

He says the 140,000-member AMA supports the wearing of helmets, and ``accepts'' requirements that minors wear them. But he says adults should be allowed a choice.

Some opponents of mandatory helmet laws suggest that a better alternative to mandatory helmets would be mandatory motorcycle rider education.

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