Twenty-two people were killed in motorcycle accidents on Maryland highways in August, the largest number of deaths ever recorded in one month in the state, where helmet laws were repealed more than a year ago.
"By far this is the worst month we've ever had," said State Police Lt. Charles Troutman, adding that motorcycle deaths were up 60 percent over the same period last year. "Out of the people killed so far I'm sure some would have been saved if they had had helmets on."
The upsurge in cycle-related deaths is sure to have an impact in the Maryland legislature, which last year repealed the law requiring motorcyclists 18 and older to wear helmets.
"I tried to get the law restored last year and I'm going to try it again," vowed Del. Theodore Levin (D-Baltimore) who plans to file another bill in Annapolis to restore the mandatory helmet law.
In the most recent fatalities, two 18-year-old Montgomery County residents were killed when their motorcycle crashed into the side of a truck. Bruce Martin Becker of Rena Court, Brookville, and Kristina Marie Kiel of Mt. Olney Road in Olney, died after they struck the truck on Route 28 about 9:50 p.m. Tuesday.
The driver of the truck, 18-year-old John Thomas Ahern of Tweed St. in Rockville, was charged with failure to grant the right-of-way. Police found one helmet at the scene of the accident.
Few people attribute the increase in motorcycle deaths solely to repeal of the helmet law. Cycle deaths are also up slightly in Virginia, where riders are required to wear helmets. Through August, 52 people have been killed on Virginia highways in motorcycle accidents, compared with 44 through August 1979.
Maryland State Police have asked the medical examiner's office to determine how many of the 69 deaths recorded so far this year in Maryland were caused by head injuries that might have been prevented by helmets.
A number of other factors may have caused the increase in deaths.
Motorcycle sales, after a sharp rise earlier this year, have fallen off but are still up 7 percent over last year, according to industry figures. New riders include commuters looking for good mileage for a gallon of gasoline. And, because the weather has been so fair, people are spending more time cruising around.
But for Lanny Harchenhorn, the Carroll County Republican who co-sponsored last year's bill to repeal the helmet law, the issue comes down to principle.
"It's a matter of personal choice," he said. "The government shouldn't be involved."
In a study published last April the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that riders without helmets are three times as likely to sustain fatal head injuries as are riders with helmets.
Since 1978, 28 states have repealed mandatory helmet laws, according to one agency. During that period the number of motorcycle-related deaths for every 10,000 registered vehicles has grown from 6.7 to 9.7, while the number of motorcycles has remained roughly constant.
"Helmets are effective in reducing serious or fatal injuries," said Lou Buchanan of the agency's Traffic Safety Program.
To Del. Constance Morella (R-Montgomery), such findings mean that the state should require motorcyclists to protect their heads.
"If we could prevent one unnecessary death," she said, "then it would be worth it. A girl in my neighborhood lost control of her motorcycle and her head went into a tree. If she had had a helmet on she might have lived. Even from a fiscal point of view a helmet law would save the state a great deal of money."
Motorcyclists who have descended on Annapolis in the past to lobby have asserted that helmets reduce visibility and hearing, and cause neck injuries. The last contention is refuted by the Traffic Safety Administration study.
Del. Harchenhorn dismisses the argument that helmets would save taxpayers money in long-term care, rehabilitation and other medical costs arising from serious motorcycle accidents.
Despite his steadfast opposition to mandatory helmet laws, Harchenhorn pulls on a helmet when he rides out of his driveway on his Honda 100.