ANNAPOLIS, FEB. 6 -- Mick Michieli, manager of the Dragon Moon Tattoo Studio in Glen Burnie, said she always wears a helmet when she rides her motorcycle. But don't tell her to put one on.

"I don't think the state should dictate the mandatory use of them," she said. "It should be freedom of choice."

Michieli's viewpoint has prevailed in the Maryland General Assembly for a decade. Each time a legislator tried to impose a helmet law for adults -- lawmakers held a hearing on the latest attempt today -- the bill suffocated in the exhaust of motorcycle-riding lobbyists. Maryland is one of 23 states that require helmets only for riders under 18.

But now, the officials who oversee state medical programs are taking a different tack. Having studied motorcycle accidents and how much public money goes to heal and rehabilitate injured riders, they want cyclists to carry more insurance.

"We're saying, 'Don't stick the state with the cost of you exercising your free rights,' " said David S. Iannucci, chief legislative officer for Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

The administration's proposal to the legislature, which advocates say is the first of its kind in the nation, would require owners of the 50,000 motorcycles registered in Maryland to carry so-called catastrophic care health insurance, with a maximum $20,000 deductible and lifetime benefit ceiling of $500,000. Insurers say such coverage is not now available but could be offered for about $250 a year. Motorcyclists must now carry liability insurance, like other drivers, but the catastrophic coverage would be unique.

Nelson J. Sabatini, a deputy secretary at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said that treating motorcyclists differently from other motorists can be justified by the findings of a study done by the Maryland Institute of Emergency Medical Services Systems.

In 1988, the most recent year for which figures were available, Maryland motorcyclists had 391 accidents for each 10,000 registered, more than twice the rate of passenger vehicle accidents. Hospitalized motorcyclists also represented a similarly disproportionate share of accident victims who lack insurance, leaving the public to pay many hospital bills.

"A motorcycle is a high-risk vehicle," Sabatini said. "I'm not being critical of people who ride motorcycles, but the likelihood of serious injury is much greater."

Forcing cyclists to carry catastrophic care insurance could save the state Medicaid program $2 million annually and the federal government a like amount, the state estimates. Hospitals could save millions more, Sabatini said, if they were able to recoup costs that now are classified as "uncompensated care."

With the administration and much of the medical community lending their weight to the proposal, supporters say the bill has a better than even chance of winning approval in the legislature.

But even some helmet law proponents aren't sure they like the new approach.

Del. Theodore Levin (D-Baltimore), a sponsor of a helmet bill in 1988, said that adding $250 to the cost of maintaining a motorcycle could be burdensome.

"The problem with the governor's proposal is that a lot of people are riding cycles for economic reasons," said Levin. "You're essentially telling them they can't ride a cycle."

Yet, Levin understands the political debate.

"The argument has always been freedom of choice," he said. "But the public ends up paying insurance coverage for these folks, because they are uninsured and get long-term injuries. Most people {in the legislature} see it as a taxpayer issue. They're not happy with people getting hurt, but there's a question of fiscal responsibility."

The proposal, which has tentatively been scheduled for a public hearing next week in the House Economic Matters Committee, is expected to generate organized opposition of the magnitude usually encountered by helmet laws.

Dirk Gilliam, a director of the 75-member Annapolis chapter of the Harley-Davidson Owners Group, said riders are being alerted and attempts to kill the bill will be mounted by the American Motorcyclists Association and an organization called ABATE (American Bikers Against Totalitarian Enactments).

"It looks like they can't pass the helmet law, so they're trying another angle to cover themselves," Gilliam said.

In particular, Gilliam said, the motorcycle lobby is concerned about a precedent being established in Maryland.

Michieli is distributing fliers about the governor's proposal to patrons at the tattoo studio.

"If Maryland passes this law," she said, "you'll have to cart your bike out of the state just to ride it."