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Motorcycle Helmets a Must

Among trauma center doctors and nurses, motorcycles are known as “donor cycles.” The grim nickname recognizes a grim reality: The lives of motorcyclists injured in accidents often cannot be saved, but their organs can be harvested for transplantation to others. The problem in this state is made all the worse by the fact that California is one of five without a helmet law.

The Legislature now has approved a law that require all motorcyclists and their passengers to wear safety crash helmets. Gov. George Deukmejian’s staff has said the governor will veto the bill, as he has in the past. That would be a grave mistake, the more so this year following the governor’s actions cutting out state funds for trauma centers and emergency rooms.

Under the legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Carson), the law would take effect Jan. 1 and remain in force for four years. The California Highway Patrol would be instructed to do a careful analysis of the impact of the law. That research would then be the basis for a decision on whether to extend it beyond the end of 1993.

There seems no doubt that the helmet law would have an immediate safety effect. An Assembly staff consultant estimates an annual saving of $65 million in California, where last year there were 21,556 motocycle injuries and 603 deaths. A single accident involving head injuries to a cyclist without a helmet can cost upwards of $1 million in medical care. Federal studies show a death rate reduction of 25% in states that mandate helmets.

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No law can eliminate all the risks. That may be a factor in the marked decline in motorcycle sales over the last three years. Nevertheless, more than 800,000 Californians hold motorcycle licenses. The governor has suggested a compromise, requiring helmets only for those under 21, which is the law in 23 states. That ignores the fact that 69% of the injuries and 73% of the deaths in California last year involved cyclists 21 and older. The governor also favors mandated training for those under 21, expanding the present requirement for those under 18. That would be useful, no doubt about it, but the governor should know that 34,000 people in that age category applied last year alone for licenses, whereas the Department of Motor of Vehicles’ teaching capacity is 7,000 a year.

The Floyd bill provides California with an opportunity to enhance motor-vehicle safety, following the good example of 22 other states, including Texas, the latest to mandate helmets for all motorcyclists. This is not a matter to be left to personal decision by the cyclists, because it is the public that pays most of the costs for the carnage made worse by injuries to motorcyclists unprotected by helmets.


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