Motorcyclists fighting for the right to feel the wind in their hair lost the first round Friday in a court battle to block enforcement of the state's new mandatory-helmet law, which takes effect on New Year's Day.
Sweeping aside a freedom-of-choice argument, Orange County Superior Court Judge James J. Alfano rejected the bikers' request for an order temporarily halting implementation of the controversial measure. Alfano said the motorcyclists failed to show that irreparable harm would result if the law were enforced--the legal criterion for a restraining order.
After the ruling, Tim Buhl, 26, a leather-jacketed mechanic and a plaintiff in the suit challenging the helmet law, stalked furiously out of the courtroom. The San Clemente man contends the legislation treads on his freedom and is fueled by greedy insurance companies.
"Is this what America is about: red, white and money?" he fumed, the spur attached to one of his black boots clicking as he paced the hall. "I went over there (to Kuwait) to defend someone else's freedom, and I come back here and mine is yanked out from under me. God bless America."
Buhl and three other motorcyclists allege that the helmet law violates their constitutional rights to freedom of religion and freedom of expression in deciding what to wear and how to protect themselves.
"The state, ostensibly to protect safety, is really taking away freedom of choice," said Wendy C. Lascher, a Ventura attorney representing the bikers. "It's saying, 'We the state are going to decide what's good for you.' "
Lascher says she plans to ask an appeals court on Monday to block the new law. Alfano will consider the main allegations of the bikers' suit at a hearing set for Feb. 26.
One plaintiff, a Sikh minister from Monterey, contends that the legislation discriminates against his religion, noting that he must choose between wearing his turban--a tenet of his faith--and a helmet. Another, a hard-of-hearing El Segundo man, feels the law is biased against the handicapped because helmets generate ear-splitting feedback from his hearing aids.
Assemblyman Richard Floyd, the Gardena Democrat who pushed for the measure for a decade, dismissed his critics bluntly, sighing wearily that he has "heard 'em all."
As for the Sikh: "Quite frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. He can wrap his turban around the helmet." Regarding the hard-of-hearing man, Floyd quipped: "As far as I'm concerned, that s.o.b. can walk."
To the rest of the bikers, Floyd said: "They like to be outlaws. They all relate to that Marlon Brando movie, 'The Wild One,' where they do what they want. Well, somebody has to be on the side of the taxpayer."
A small revision in the motorcyclists' dress code, Floyd said, is worth protecting lives and saving tax dollars by reducing the need to provide medical care to uninsured cyclists.
Dr. Kenneth Waxman, who directs the trauma center at UCI Medical Center in Orange, praised the law. Believing it can avert "devastating head injuries," Waxman joined emergency room physicians around the state in lobbying hard for the legislation.
Over the rallies and protests of thousands of motorcyclists, Gov. Pete Wilson signed the mandatory helmet law in May. Now, many bikers are clamoring for a "Day of Defiance" next month in Sacramento, where they will roar into town and publicly refuse to don helmets.
California, with 20% of the nation's registered motorcycles, has long been a haven for bareheaded biking, requiring head gear only for those younger than 15 1/2. But come 1992, it will join 23 other states and the District of Columbia in requiring helmets for all motorcyclists.
The California Highway Patrol has said it will observe a 90-day grace period, warning lawbreakers to comply with the law. After that, a first offense will bring a $100 fine, a second citation, $200, and a third, $250.
Bikers say the fines will not make the roads any safer. They fault helmets for causing spinal injury in a collision and reducing two critical safety mechanisms--a rider's hearing and peripheral vision.
But Waxman said his research has shown that helmets do not increase the risk of neck injuries. In the October issue of the Western Journal of Medicine, Waxman and a colleague analyzed 474 motorcycle injuries treated at UCI in 1987-88.
They found that head injuries were more severe in the 236 who were not wearing helmets, and that they were more seriously disabled after discharge. Their average hospital bills also were higher--$30,000 compared to $16,000 for those who wore helmets.
Motorcyclists have urged legislators to implement expanded motorcycle safety programs instead of imposing restrictions on riders. But helmet-law proponents keep citing CHP statistics showing that in California last year, only 94 of the 569 motorcyclists who died were wearing helmets. Of the 18,578 injured, only 4,538 wore head protection.
With enforcement of the law just around the corner, Orange County-area motorcycle shops are increasing their stocks of helmets. Many report sales increases of up to 30%, with one reporting a 200% jump. Shop owners say they expect another burst of sales after New Year's Day.
"I just think people are dragging their feet," said Bret Meacham, who manages Cycle City in El Toro. "A lot of them are really reluctant and . . . won't get helmets until they see that people are being ticketed" for riding helmet-less.
James (Doc) Edge, 52, a Laguna Niguel biker who was lunching at Cook's Corner, a motorcyclists' hangout east of El Toro, said he grudgingly bought a helmet recently, but he isn't happy about it.
"Since I was small, riding a Harley-Davidson and feeling the wind in your face is as American as the cowboy, the buffalo and the American Indian," he said, his voice cracking with emotion. "This issue transcends safety. It's an affair of the heart. It's un-American to force bikers to wear a helmet."
Times staff writers Lily Dizon, Lanie Jones and Davan Maharaj contributed to this report.