Assembly Panel Passes Motorcycle Helmet Bill

Times Staff Writer

Heeding the advice of motorcycle stunt man Evel Knievel and disregarding the presence of Hells Angels, an Assembly committee approved a controversial bill Wednesday night to require motorcyclists to wear safety helmets in order to reduce injuries and deaths.

A 10-4 vote sent the legislation from the Assembly Transportation Committee to the Ways and Means Committee for further study.

It was believed to be the first time, after two decades of attempts, that a mandatory motorcycle helmet bill has cleared a policy committee of the California Legislature.


Knievel, who gained fame for jumping rows of automobiles on a motorcycle while wearing a helmet, was booed by opposing motorcyclists in the audience after his testimony and a videotape showing some of his unlucky jumps.

An estimated 150 Hell’s Angels waited outside the state Capitol while the committee heard testimony on the legislation. They protested that a mandatory helmet law would be an invasion of their rights.

Knievel was introduced to the committee by Assemblyman Richard Floyd (D-Hawthorne), the bill’s author, as the “best walking commercial for a helmet there is.”

“Mr. Knievel has broken virtually every bone in his body,” Floyd said, “but his head has always been protected.”

Knievel, who said he was “thankful to be alive,” recalled that a drunk recently asked him in a bar what it felt like to crash in a jump. He said he told the drunk to sit on the hood of his car, have his wife drive it 80 m.p.h. down the highway and, when she blew the horn, to jump off.

Knievel said even that “stupid drunk” knew enough to answer that he would have to go home first and get his safety helmet.

Other witnesses supporting the bill included parents of people who had been injured or killed in motorcycle accidents while not wearing helmets.

Paul Bellaziah and his wife, who lost a 25-year-old son in such an accident, said, “We’d rather have Charles here with us today, wearing a helmet, than be taking him flowers in the graveyard.”

An opposing witness, Roy Jensen of the American Motorcycle Assn., said his organization supports the voluntary use of helmets but is against a mandatory helmet law.

“Far greater social problems face California today than if motorcyclists should wear helmets,” Jensen said.

Dr. Ronald MacKenzie, a New York surgeon and urologist, also told the committee that motorcycle helmets can reduce hearing and vision and cause accidents.

Hell’s Angels were part of a large caravan of bikers who circled the Capitol just before noon and held an orderly rally on the lawn before the hearing.

Schoolchildren arriving by bus to tour the Capitol stared as the burly bikers gathered for the rally and parked their bikes on nearby streets. State workers also stopped to gawk on their way to lunch.

Alan Mahon, president of the Sacramento chapter of the Angels, told a reporter, “This is a freedom-of-choice matter. It has been proved numerous times that helmets are of no advantage over 15 m.p.h. We feel we should be free to choose whether we want to wear them or not. And we don’t want to wear helmets.”

‘Enormous Groundswell’

Sonny (Duke) Dukes, a hulking magazine photographer with a shaved head, tattoos and skull-and-crossbones jewelry, said, “Let those who ride decide. If people want to wear helmets, let them wear helmets.”

Canadian attorney Jim McNeney said at the rally, “What happens in California will set the tone for the rest of North America. If California gets a compulsory helmet law, it will be rammed down the throats of the rest of North America. There has been an enormous groundswell in bikers’ rights, and we’re just not going to take it anymore.”

The crowd loudly applauded McNeney’s remarks in the bright sunshine as a smaller competing rally--protesting Gov. George Deukmejian’s proposed Medi-Cal cuts--also boomed out their views.

Thomas (Bear) Ganyon of the Modified Motorcycle Assn., a trucker who attends a community college, said that more than 10,000 protest letters have been sent to members of the Assembly Transportation Committee, plus petitions containing 90,000 more names.

“Everyone is here because they do not want to wear a helmet,” Ganyon said. “And just because a guy chooses to ride a motorcycle and have a long beard like me does not make me a bad guy.”

‘$65 Million a Year’

Asked about the remarks made at the noon rally, Assemblyman Floyd said, “Helmetless motorcycle riders are costing California taxpayers $65 million a year. That’s the cost of medical care for motorcyclists who are injured in accidents and not wearing helmets. The average amount an injured rider pays is $120, according to studies.

“That’s ridiculous. Not only are they stupid not to wear helmets, but they’re so stupid they don’t even carry insurance. Maybe we’re the ones who are stupid. After all, we’re the ones paying for the injuries.”

Floyd said 20 other states have motorcycle helmet laws and four states that repealed them saw a sharp increase in serious injuries that later led to reinstatement.