By Rose Hoban
Similar to how a tire rotates, returning to the same position, a bill removing the requirement for most motorcyclists to wear a helmet has returned to the General Assembly.
During Monday’s meeting of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston), the committee chair, introduced for discussion a bill that would make it optional for motorcyclists over the age of 21 to wear a helmet.
It’s not Torbett’s first trip around this particular legislative axis. He has introduced almost the same bill during each of the past two legislative sessions, and he signed on to sponsor a similar bill during his first term in 2011.
“I will tell you this that people in the medical profession come out and tell you that it’s dangerous to not wear a helmet, and I agree. I’m a motorcycle rider and I do wear a helmet and it is more dangerous not to wear a helmet than it is to wear a helmet,” Torbett said. But he argued that the decision to wear a helmet should be his and that he should be able to take “personal responsibility” for the consequences.
Torbett found support from his legislative colleague, Michael Speciale (R-Beaufort), who is also a motorcyclist.
“For those of you who haven’t gotten close to a motorcycle helmet, it’s styrofoam,” Speciale said. “The reality is that if you get into a wreck and you are going at any high rate of speed, you’ve got a problem regardless of whether you’re wearing a helmet or not.”
During the committee hearing, Torbett argued that only 6 percent of motor vehicle deaths occur for people who are riding motorcycles, and many more people are injured in cars and trucks.
“If we’re after the pure safety concern for our citizens, it looks like we’d be closer to addressing actually wearing helmets inside of vehicles based on the statistics,” Torbett said.
Deaths per mile differ
But the statistics are a little more subtle. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, motorcycles account for 0.7 percent of motor vehicle miles driven annually in the U.S. compared to enclosed vehicles such as cars and trucks. A greater proportion of motorcycle riders involved in accidents die than those who drive cars.
NHTSA data show that per mile driven, motorcyclists are actually 26 times more likely to die than people driving cars which have air bags and shock absorbing car frames.
An analysis published in a special edition of the Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation in 2015 found motorcycle crash patients presenting to emergency departments across North Carolina with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) “were 2 times as likely to be admitted to the hospital, 3 times as likely to be transferred to another facility, 8 times as likely to be admitted to the ICU, and 3 times as likely to die in the ED, relative to patients without a TBI diagnosis.”
A quarter of those motorcycle crash patients admitted to the hospital had expenses higher than $100,000. The study also found that use of motorcycle helmets is estimated to reduce the risk of head injury by 72 percent.
In a recent report completed by the Governors Highway Safety Association published last year, motorcycle deaths drove an increase in highway fatalities.
The GHSA report determined that the biggest jump in motorcycle fatalities last year came in Florida, where the death toll was estimated at 550, up from 450 in 2014. The association noted Florida repealed its universal helmet law in 2000, making helmets voluntary for motorcyclists 21 and older with at least $10,000 in medical coverage for motorcycle-related injuries, similar to Torbett’s proposed bill.
Saved lives, money
“Emergency physicians are very supportive of our current laws in North Carolina and have significant concerns about this bill,” Ashley Christiansen, a lobbyist for the NC College of Emergency Physicians, told the committee. “We also have concerns for younger cyclists when they see older motorcyclists without the helmet, they may be more inclined to ride without helmet.”
A separate analysis completed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2010 found the United States saved $3 billion due to motorcycle helmet use in 2010. The CDC also estimated that if all motorcyclists had worn helmets in 2010, the United States would have saved an additional $1.4 billion.
The CDC also found “North Carolina has the highest estimated economic costs saved per registered motorcycle due to the use of motorcycle helmets of any state,” with 79.9 lives saved per 100,000 registered motorcycles and economic savings of $1,627 per registered motorcycle due to helmet use.
Speciale downplayed what opponents of the bill had to say.
“A lot of these statistics, you can play with numbers and statistics any way you want to, go online you can choose to do it yourself,” he said.
The committee agreed, passing the bill by a voice vote. The bill, originally scheduled to be heard in the House Health Committee, instead will go straight onto the House floor for a vote Tuesday, April 25.