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More Than Just Cyclists’ Safety : Helmet law protects riders, and a society that must care for the injured

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Gov. Pete Wilson took an important step toward reducing carnage on California’s roads Monday when he signed a law requiring motorcyclists and their passengers to wear crash helmets.

When it takes effect Jan. 1, 1992, the law, sponsored by Richard E. Floyd (D-Carson), will require motorcyclists--as well as motor scooter and motorized bicycle riders--to wear state-approved safety helmets on streets and highways. Those refusing to do so would face a maximum $100 fine for a first offense.

The legislation makes California the 24th state requiring helmets for all riders. The law replaces a previous state law that mandated helmets for motorcycle riders 15 1/2 years old and younger and all riders using off-road vehicles.

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Opponents of the law say that it is an infringement on freedom of choice. Some motorcycle enthusiasts will continue lobbying the Legislature to have the law reconsidered. Some have vowed to resist the law by refusing to wear headgear. Others have threatened court action.

But individual freedoms don’t exist in a vacuum. The courts have clearly stated that individuals who ride without a helmet incur risks that extend beyond themselves. In 1972, a federal court ruled--and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed--that society has an interest when someone is injured on a public highway: “From moment of injury, society picks the person up off the highway; delivers him to a municipal hospital and municipal doctors; provides him with unemployment compensation if, after recovery, he cannot replace his lost job, and, if injury causes permanent disability, assumes responsibility for his and his family’s continued subsistence.”

In California, the medical bills for an injured motorcyclist average more than $17,700, according to a UC Davis study, and 82% of that amount is publicly funded.

Of course, motorcyclists should not bear the burden alone. The Legislature must now toughen enforcement of state laws that require automobile passengers to wear seat belts.

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