When l7 motorcyclists rode to the state capital in l974 to protest the then-mandatory helmet law, "they were literally laughed out of Annapolis," recalled Kenny Brown, Maryland state coordinator for an organization called American Bikers Acting Towards Education.

"We were very ignorant about lobbying procedures," said Brown, 28, a courier for the Navy Department who was not a member of the organization then.

Also known as ABATE (A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments), the Maryland chapter has grown from a "ragtag outfit" to an effective lobbying organization with more than 3,000 members now, Brown said. Maryland has 86,000 registered motorcycles.

Now the group has helped write a bill on rider education, which the current chairman of the Maryland Senate's constitution and public law committee, Sen. Norman Stone (D-Baltimore County), is sponsoring, Brown noted. The bill would provide courses as well as a state media program on motorcycle safety.

But originally, the group was organized to defend what it called bikers' "constitutional right" to ride with or without helmets.

"We're not anti-helmet," Brown explained. "We're just anti-helmet law." Many of the groups' members don't wear helmets, he said, because they are heavy, make it hard to hear and impair vision. In 1978, the last full year the helmet law was in effect in Maryland, there were 81 fatalities of motorcyclists in the state, Brown said. In 1981 there were 89 fatalities in Maryland; 39 were wearing helmets and 50 were not, according to the National Highway Safety Administration.

By 1978, the bikers had organized: One spring day, 1,500 of them--members of ABATE and friends--rode their cycles helmetless around State Circle in Annapolis in a demonstration of their opposition to then-Gov. Blair Lee's decision to veto a repeal of the helmet law. About a year later, an amended law went into effect: now only motorcyclists under the age of 18 must wear helmets.

Brown credits the organization with being "all but single-handedly" responsible for the change in the law by being the motivating force behind the action.

But "ever since we've been opposing helmet laws, we've been advocating rider education and public awareness as [the method] for saving lives," said Bob Ritter, a truck driver who is the legislative representative for ABATE and the Maryland Motorcycle Election Committee, a group that was formed in the late 1970s to combat attempts to reestablish the helmet law.

Last year, a proposal the group supported, one providing for an education program, was defeated. The Maryland Department of Transportation opposed it because it was to be funded through the Department of Education, much in the manner of current driver education classes in high schools.

This year's version would pay for such programs out of increased motorcycle license fees, which Brown and others think makes it more widely acceptable.

"I think deep down these people [ABATE members] have an abiding desire to have safe motorcycle riders on the road," said Thomas Widerman, an associate administrator for the Motor Vehicle Administration.

"Several years ago they had a bad image," he added. ". . . They were so aggressive, so believing in their cause, that they may have been overly [aggressive] . . . . The image of black jackets that prevailed a few years ago isn't true now. I respect them as gentlemen. I know they have some mavericks, but so does AAA [the American Automobile Association]."

Stone's proposal calls for a state-wide course in motorcycle riding and safety and a media program to make the public more aware of motorcyclists on the road. A course designed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation has been suggested as a model.

The voluntary classes would be offered by community colleges and motorcycle organizations, with a maximum cost of $25 to students. For each enrollee completing the course, the organizations and the schools would receive $50 from the state.

About eight hours of classroom work and 12 hours of actual riding time are included. The course would cover the "basic fundamentals: how to use the throttle, clutch, balance, braking and safety equipment," Ritter said.

Funds for the program would come from an increase of $2.50 over the present $10 motorcycle license fee, plus an increase in the registration fee, netting $400,000 annually, he said.

Although the group maintains that rider education has reduced accidents and fatalities in other states that have started programs--in particular, Illinois, which has offered classes since l976--the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said all the evidence is not in yet.

"There are several studies that have suggested that rider education has been beneficial in reducing accidents , but there's nothing conclusive," said Lewis Buchanan, motorcycle specialist with the Office of State Program Assistance of the NHTSA. "We are in favor of rider education programs, but we don't think it should be considered as an alternative to helmets."

Every year a bill is introduced to reinstate the helmet law, but Brown hopes that as ABATE grows (its current rate is l00 new members a month), so will its political clout, and that the group can keep the helmet requirement off the books.

The organization also hopes to block the proposed mandatory "lights on" law that would require motorcyclists to use their headlights 24 hours a day. As with a helmet law, the group claims that this discriminates against motorcyclists.

"They proponents say motorcycles are hard to see. Why not cars? Cars can also be in blind spots," Brown said. It would also be a financial burden, he added, requiring replacement of the bike's electrical system every two to three years.

Contrary to the "outlaw bikers" image they used to have, ABATE members come from all walks of life, including police officers--"all the way from laborers to lawyers . . . and a doctor, too," Brown said. He added that only about 5 percent of the members are "confirmed" members of motorcycle clubs.

The group's activities are not limited to lobbying at the legislature. Members have an account with the American Red Cross Blood Bank and the Lion's Club Eye Bank. Members also participate in "Operation Santa Claus," gathering toys for underprivileged children to be distributed at Christmas by the Salvation Army.

Another of the group's objectives is to keep increasing its membership, as well as the political knowledge of bikers.

The anti-helmet issue "has taken an unlikely group of people from obscurity to total awareness of the judicial and political systems of America," Brown said. "Although the bikers may not look like they belong in mainstream America, a member of ABATE after a period of time should be more knowledgeable about legal matters than the average tax-paying registered voter . . . . It's like a little guy beating city hall."