Loren Victory knew he was in the wrong.
So when he eased his Suzuki motorcycle out of a supermarket parking lot into traffic in West Hollywood Wednesday afternoon, he kept a sharp eye out for the police.
The bareheaded, 28-year-old Victory was violating the new law that went into effect New Year's Day requiring anyone who travels on a motorcycle in California to wear a state-approved safety helmet.
He breathed a sigh of relief when he made it the few blocks home without being busted. He breathed another when he learned that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which has jurisdiction over West Hollywood, had extended motorcyclists a 15-day grace period to comply with the new requirement.
"Any chance of getting (the law) overturned?" Victory could not resist asking a reporter hopefully. "It's going to be a pain. . . . "
Similar sentiments were expressed by other local motorcyclists who feel put upon by the law, which ends decades of official laissez faire toward motorcycle riders and the physical risk they face riding.
But many grudgingly strapped the protective headgear on for the first time, knowing that some law enforcement agencies--notably the California Highway Patrol--promised to begin issuing $100 tickets to violators at one minute after midnight.
"I'm not a virgin anymore with this helmet," lamented Barry Brown, a 36-year-old Los Angeles resident, who sat on his bike on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. He said he bought the helmet "at the last minute."
Brown's girlfriend, Bonnie Godin, without headgear, sat on the bike behind him.
"They didn't have another one at the store to match mine," Brown said, explaining Godin's lack of a helmet.
"I'm glad," she snapped.
Equally defiant was George Christie, a Hells Angels leader, who said he went for a long ride Wednesday in Ventura County--bareheaded.
"At some point I know I'm going to have to put on a helmet," said Christie. "But I haven't gotten up the nerve yet."
The new law affects more than 800,000 motorcyclists in California, which is home to one-fifth of the nation's motorcycle riders.
The law has been hailed by police, the insurance industry and even some motorcyclists as a way to cut injuries and fatalities in bike accidents.
Keith Stringer, riding in Ventura, said the law was a good idea. A helmet "just protects you," said Stringer, who wore head protection before Wednesday. "I feel good about the law."
Opponents, however, say the law robs riders of freedom of choice and prevents them from experiencing motorcycling in its purest form--with the wind blowing through their hair.
At the Rock Store, a bikers' hangout in Agoura, others supported wearing of helmets but opposed the new measure.
"I always wear a helmet--every time I ride I have one on," said Alan Teel, 37, of Studio City. "But I don't want them telling me what to do. . . . Will we have to wear safety belts in bed someday? Or guide wires in the shower? Where will all this lead?"
About 60 motorcycle riders participated New Year's Eve in "One Last Free Ride," a 40-mile last hurrah up the Angeles Crest Highway sponsored by the Southern California Norton Club. Bill Bibbiani, president of the club and an administrator with the Pasadena Unified School District, said most members of the club already wear helmets. The ride was held to draw attention to his belief that the helmet law is a harbinger of undesirable restrictions on motorcyclists, he said.
Some opponents insist that the helmets themselves are dangerous.
"They impede your sight and your hearing," said Rudy Gallegos, 45, who also donned a helmet for the first time on Wednesday. "It's a new experience and you find yourself concentrating on something other than the driving."
He and his riding partner, Terry-Lee Poulsen, 25, were parked Wednesday on Hollywood Boulevard, their new fiberglass Monarch model helmets hung from the sides of their Harley-Davidson Heritage Classics.
They looked for the least restrictive helmets they could find when they went shopping for the headgear four months ago. The models they bought extend no lower than mid-ear.
"I'm all for motorcycle safety, no question about it," Poulsen said. "But I don't think this law is the answer."
Victory said he opposed the helmet law at an elementary level. For him, it was a matter of convenience.
"If they had little lockers all over the place where you could put them when you are not riding, that would be fine," he said. "But if I go to see a movie, what am I supposed to do? Sit with the thing on my lap?"
Times staff writers Jim Herron Zamora in the San Fernando Valley and Tina Daunt in Ventura contributed to this story.