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Motorcyclist Group Files Lawsuit to Overturn Helmet Law

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Parking their Harley-Davidsons outside, a group of motorcyclists filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court Thursday to overturn the state’s helmet law as a violation of their right to feel the wind in their hair.

Members of the nationwide American Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education assert that the 14-month-old law should be struck down because it does not define what constitutes a helmet and because it is based on an unproven thesis that helmets save lives.

“There is total confusion among police about (what) is and isn’t a legal helmet,” said Steven (Red) Barron, president of ABATE’s San Diego chapter. “That by definition is a vague and obscure law.”

The California Highway Patrol reports a 37% drop in motorcycle fatalities and 27% drop in motorcycle injuries in the nine months after the helmet law became effective Jan. 1, 1992. “Helmets help prevent fatalities and injuries,” said CHP spokesman Steve Kohler.

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But ABATE said the decrease is because of motorcycle safety classes required for anyone under 21 years old who is applying for a motorcycle driver’s license.

Like many other motorcyclists, Barron, 33, a senior staff technician at the General Atomics’ linear accelerator in San Diego, said the helmet law is an excuse for police to hassle motorcyclists, particularly those riding Harleys. To express that view, Barron wears a black T-shirt that says in white letters: “Helmet Laws Suck.”

Steve Bianco, 45, a plastics and epoxy engineer, said that Harley riders are far more likely to be pulled over for a helmet inspection than are “those people in their color-coordinated outfits” riding other kinds of motorcycles.

“It allows cops who have a bigoted idea of Harley riders to pull us over, even though Harley riders are the safest on the road,” said Bianco.

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Although there are other lawsuits aimed at killing the helmet law, this is the first filed in federal court and the first filed as a class action suit. The suit alleges that the law is unconstitutional because it abridges personal freedom protected under the 4th and 14th amendments.

“Wearing a helmet should be a personal choice item,” said ABATE member Thom Bianco, 43, an aerospace consultant. “If you believe a helmet makes you safer, by all means wear it. But we believe that you’re more likely to be injured with a helmet because of the restricted vision, restricted hearing, wind drag, and the weight and heat factors.”

ABATE, which claims 5,000 members statewide, has been galvanized by the helmet law, encouraging individual lawsuits and educating its members in legal nuances. ABATE members opposed the reelection of the law’s sponsor, former Assemblyman Dick Floyd (D-Carson), and took credit for his defeat last fall.

“They see the Harleys and T-shirts and figure we’re just dumb bikers,” said ABATE member Mike Shifrel, 39, an air freight worker. “They’ve underestimated the wrong people.”

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