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Wilson Signs Law Requiring Helmets for Motorcyclists

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Over the objections of bikers voiced during nearly three decades of legislative debate, Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation Monday requiring motorcycle riders to wear safety helmets on California streets and highways.

Sweeping aside the free-choice argument that had prevailed in the past, Wilson declared that the need to prevent injury and death was paramount.

“Simply put, this bill will save lives,” he said, choosing as a site for the signature ceremony a physical therapy unit at a local hospital, where injured cyclists often end up for treatment.

“Opponents of this bill claim that it will limit personal choice and indeed it will,” the governor said. “That’s something the law should seek to avoid, except where there is, as here, justification of compelling force.”

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The helmet law requires the state’s 850,000 motorcyclists to begin wearing the protective headgear on Jan. 1, 1992. The California Highway Patrol said it will allow a 90-day grace period before it starts issuing citations to violators. Thereafter, anyone driving or riding on a motorized cycle without a helmet will be subjected to fines starting at $100 and rising above that for repeat offenses.

Among the thousands of motorcyclists who protested the helmet requirement, some leaders of cycle clubs said they would encourage members to flout the law and clog the courts with their cases. Protest leaders also promised to sign up new voters to try to oust lawmakers who voted for the bill, and to file a lawsuit challenging the law.

“It’s not over yet. Not by a long shot,” said Paul Lax, the statewide coordinator of one of the protesting groups.

Laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear helmets are in force in 23 other states and the District of Columbia. Where lawsuits have challenged those laws, all have failed, according to Bob Terry, an aide to the California measure’s author, Assemblyman Richard Floyd (D-Carson).

“These courts have upheld such laws in every instance,” he said, noting that a Massachusetts case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that the state had the right to enact a helmet law.

The signing represented a big victory for Floyd, who has doggedly carried the measure for 10 years.

“God, I’m just happy to be here today,” Floyd said. “When I introduced this bill, I wanted the law, but I wasn’t looking forward to having it become a career.”

The helmet battle began in the mid-1960s when about a dozen members of the bearded and burly Hells Angels came to the state Capitol and disrupted an Assembly committee hearing to protest a mandatory helmet law proposal. The measure never went to a floor vote in either legislative house.

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Other attempts to create a helmet law came and went over the years. In recent times, as the motorcycling constituency broadened to include riders such as stockbrokers, bankers and lawyers, the chances for the legislation appeared to brighten. But on the two occasions that helmet bills reached the desk of former Gov. George Deukmejian, he vetoed them, saying they were too sweeping.

Wilson, however, indicated in early March that he was favorably disposed to a helmet requirement for all motorcycle riders.

Opponents again marshaled their forces in an attempt to change Wilson’s mind, organizing biker rallies in Los Angeles and Sacramento that attracted 4,000 and 500 riders, respectively.

But at the signing ceremony Monday at Mercy General Hospital, Wilson was unswayed.

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“We don’t know exactly how much money and how many lives will be saved with this legislation,” he said, “but we do know that the cost of not enacting it is too great for a civilized society to bear.”

Highway Patrol statistics show that 1990 motorcycle crashes resulted in 562 fatalities and more than 18,000 injuries.

Standing at the governor’s side when he signed the measure was Mary Price of Sacramento, whose son, Jimmy, 19, was killed in a 1985 motorcycle accident. He was not wearing a helmet at the time. Price helped lobby the bill through the Legislature.

“I made a vow that no other mother should have to go through what I did simply because we didn’t have a helmet law in California,” she said.

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Said the Republican governor: “She got mad and her efforts were relentless. Today, her dream comes true.”

Wilson recalled that a bill to require motorcycle helmets was being debated in the mid-1960s when he arrived in Sacramento as a freshman assemblyman from San Diego. “So it’s taken a very long time,” Wilson said.

Supporters argue that helmets will save lives and save California taxpayers $65 million to $100 million a year on care for helmetless motorcyclists who suffer serious head injuries in accidents.

Various law enforcement groups, physicians, hospitals, traffic safety groups and insurance companies supported the bill as it went through the legislative process. The vote was 48 to 24 in the Assembly and 22 to 10 in the Senate.

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Motorcycle club members who claim that helmets restrict their freedom of choice have argued that the headgear does little good in most motorcycle crashes, and can lead to accidents by impairing peripheral vision and hearing.

A spokesman for the American Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education (ABATE) and Bikers Against Manslaughter (BAM) said they intend to push a massive voter registration drive to reelect their legislative friends and drive their pro-helmet enemies out of office.

“I think we can make a difference in close races,” said Lax, the ABATE statewide coordinator. “And we will find another lawmaker to carry a bill to try to repeal the law.” A number of biker club leaders have proclaimed in flyers passed out at rallies that cyclists should break the law, be cited and demand a jury trial, thus creating massive court case backlogs.

Asked how the Highway Patrol intends to enforce the new mandatory helmet law, information officer Sam Haynes said, “We will have the usual 90-day grace period to enable everyone to become familiar with the requirements of the new law. Then we will be citing all violators.”

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Wilson said motorcycle riders who do not wear helmets are 40% more likely to suffer fatal head injuries than those who do wear helmets. He said that in states where helmets are required, motorcycle fatalities have been reduced by up to one-third in the first year that a helmet law was enacted.

“Our government can’t prevent every tragedy, it cannot prevent every accident from happening,” he said. “But motorcycles, at least when ridden without helmets, are inherently dangerous.”

Former Assemblyman John F. Foran (D-San Francisco), now a lobbyist, one of the first early authors of a losing helmet bill, said, “I’m pleased. It’s quite appropriate for motorcycle riders to wear helmets because of the societal costs and problems that they create.”

He added that when he was trying to push such a law, “I was caught between the right and the left on the issue. The left said no one had the right to coerce people into having to wear helmets. The right said let them kill themselves if they want to ride without a helmet.”

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Covering All Cyclists

Existing state law requires all riders of all-terrain motorcycles and motorcycle riders 15 1/2 years of age and under to wear safety helmets. The bill signed into law Monday by Gov. Pete Wilson will extend the requirement to all motorcyclists. Here is how it works: * The new law takes effect next Jan. 1.

* Failure to wear a federally approved helmet will be an infraction punishable by a fine of up to $100 for a first offense.

* A second offense within a year requires a $200 fine; a third offense within a year will cost $250.

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* The California Highway Patrol said it intends to begin citing violators after a traditional 90-day grace period.


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