PRESS – Assembly OKs Repeal of Helmet Law

By Max Vanzi
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO Amid declarations about the freedom to choose and too much government intrusion into private lives, the Assembly on Thursday approved legislation that would repeal California’s motorcycle helmet law.If the Senate now passes the bill, Gov. Pete Wilson has vowed to veto it “in its present form”- setting up the embarrassing prospect of Republicans threatening to override their own governor.

With three Democrats voting with a near-solid Republican bloc, the measure to allow adults to ride without helmets passed 42 to 30 and now moves to the State Senate, where supporters plan a major push for final legislative passage.

Freedom of choice is the issue, said the bill’s main sponsor, Assemblyman Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside) once an avid motorcyclist. “But in California,” he said, “the motorcyclist has no choice at all.

That choice has been made for him by the great nanny in the sky in Sacramento, our state government… When it comes to riding motorcycles, government bureaucrats don’t know their headlights from their taillights, if you know what I mean.”

Wilson, who signed the mandatory helmet law in 1991 will continue to support the current law “as long as it can be shown it saves lives, prevents injuries and saves the state costs in medical bills from head injuries,” said press secretary Sean Walsh. “We’re opposed to the bill in its current form.”

Later; another Wilson spokesman asked about the possibility of a veto override, quoted the governor as saying: “I’m not worried about it right now, because it’s still pretty far from my desk. I haven’t thought about it.”

If Wilson’s opposition hold’s, said a Republican legislative staffer, “What I’m afraid of is a possible attempt at a veto override,” pitting GOP lawmakers – newly powerful in the Assembly – against their Republican governor.

Although advocates for repeal would be hard-pressed to round up the votes necessary for an override – 54 in the Assembly and 27 in the Senate – the spectacle of an intraparty Republican showdown on a hot issue would be acutely embarrassing, according to another Republican staffer.

But Assembly Republicans who support the bill (AB 244) brushed aside such concerns as they traded verbal shots with Democrats.

Passage of the bill has been presented as a major objective of the Assembly Republican leadership under Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove). Pringle has called it significant that repeal of the helmet law, as well as bills requiring voters to show ID cards and allowing paddling of young graffiti taggers and misbehaving schoolchildren, have been approved by committees now controlled by Republican majorities.

California is one of 26 states requiring motorcyclists to wear protective headgear, according to Michael Osborn of the anti-helmet rider group ABATE.

He was happy with Thursday’s vote and credited motorcyclists with influencing the vote. Osborn noted that hundreds of motorcyclists at a time have descended on the capitol several times in protest since the helmet law was approved. Some riders have shown up without helmets, some wearing them and some wearing a skimpy facsimile.

As of 1994, the Department of Motor Vehicles listed 527,666 motorcycles registered in the state. There was no immediate break-down of the number of those registered to those over 21, to whom the repeal would apply. Those under 21 would still be required to wear a helmet.

Morrow said that, since the law took effect, “at least $40 million has been lost in the state from decreases in motorcycle registration fees and motorcycle sales. He said the new law discouraged motorcycle ownership. He added that his own motorcycle has been in his garage most of the time since the helmet law went into effect Jan. 1,1992.

But Democrats challenged Morrow’s conclusions. Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) said university researchers have documented that cycle helmets accounted for saving 189 lives and $178 million that would otherwise have been spent on treating head injuries during 1992 – 93.

Assembly minority leader Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) said that since the law took effect, motorcycle fatalities have decreased 45% and that the number of riders receiving head injury treatment decreased 49% in 1992 and another 10% in l993.

“The proponents for personal freedom claim the right to bash their heads on concrete but they don’t offer to pay for the medical treatment Costs, Katz said. He added that less than half of those injured in motorcycle accidents in 1991 through 1993 had medical insurance. The taxpayers paid the rest of those costs,” he said.

Assemblyman Bernie Richter of Chico, one of several Republicans who spoke in favor of repeal, said Democrats were applying a double standard to motorcycle riders “because anointed liberals don’t ride motorcycles.”

They do ski, however, said Richter, yet no one is proposing that skiers wear helmets.

Morrow said he was unaware of Wilson’s threat to veto repeal the helmet law. In the Senate, Morrow said, “we will have to go member by member” trying to coax favorable votes. The bill will be heard initially in the Transportation Committee.

The outcome in the traditionally more independent Senate was too close to call Thursday. It does, however, face a big fight from Senator Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco), chairman of the Transportation Committee and a powerful enemy of plans to repeal the helmet law.

“Armageddon is going to be in the Senate Transportation Committee,” Kopp said in a recent interview. “I’m reasonably certain my Committee is not going to buckle” and approve the repeal measure.

If it does survive the Transportation Committee, its future at the hands of the full Senate is uncertain, said President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), who voted against the helmet law in 1991.

“It might be that there should be a requirement that if people are riding without a helmet, they should have proof of private health insurance,” Lockyer said in an interview. “if they want the personal liberty, maybe they ought to endure the personal costs rather than shift it to the public.

Times staff writer Carl Ingram contributed to the article