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Motorcycle Helmet Bill Crashes in Committee

By Rose Hoban

A bill that would have removed the requirement for motorcycle riders over the age of 21 to use a helmet while riding ran into a roadblock this week.

The bill, which passed the House Transportation Committee in late March, took a detour for close to a month before resurfacing this past week in a House judiciary committee.

Status of state motorcycle laws, National Council of State Legislatures, 2012

Status of state motorcycle laws, National Council of State Legislatures, 2012

In the 1960s, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration told states that in order to keep federal highway funding they would have to enact helmet laws. Forty-seven of 50 states complied.

Bill sponsor Rep. John Torbett (R-Stanley) told the committee on Wednesday that since repeal of that requirement in the 1970s, more than 30 states have gone back to allowing “freedom of choice” for riders.

Torbett said that he often rides his motorcycle to South Carolina, where he can then remove his helmet. He told the committee that helmet-free states are able to bring in additional tourism dollars.

He also maintained that the statistics don’t support safety advocates’ claims that riding without a helmet is less safe then riding with one or that health care costs for trauma rise in states without universal helmet laws.

But Torbett hit a pothole in the committee, where both Republican and Democratic members recounted stories from family and friends who had been injured or died on motorcycles.

“I visited a counseling session for what I thought were mentally retarded folks getting mental health services,” recounted Rep. Joe Sam Queen (R-Waynesville). “Out of about a dozen folks in the room, a good half were regular guys I grew up with who had motorcycle wrecks and were severely brain damaged.”

Queen said that before that experience, he would have voted for Torbett’s bill, but the memory of it had changed his mind.

Tom Crosby of AAA Carolinas told the committee that North Carolina is rated first in the nation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for traffic safety relating to motorcycle fatalities. He pointed out that one in eight traffic fatalities in the U.S. is a motorcyclist.

WakeMed emergency department doctor David Kammer related gruesome stories of helmetless motorcycle riders from South Carolina who he treated while working in a trauma center in Charlotte.

“We allow minor infringements on personal freedom because the benefits to society are deemed as far outweighing the costs,” Kammer said. “Helmets are no different.”

In the end, committee chair Rep Jonathan Jordan (R-Jefferson) didn’t call for a vote, meaning the bill is, effectively, out of gas.

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