Helmets are currently required for everyone who rides a motorcycle, but a bill to remove the requirement for adults passed a House committee Tuesday.
By Rose Hoban
Sandra Farmer knows two young women, both in their early ’30s, who fell off the back of motorcycles a few years ago.
One was wearing a helmet, one wasn’t.
“The one who was wearing a helmet has some cognitive and behavioral problems,” Farmer said. “She’s not able to work, but she can be at home on her own with her kids.”
But the other woman can’t walk and has difficulty talking, and her aging parents worry about who will take care of her when they’re gone.
“She was in the cul-de-sac in her neighborhood when this happened, so it wasn’t on the highway at high speed,” Farmer said. “Now this family is facing the dilemma of what to do with this young woman, and there’s no good place to put her.”
Farmer is the head of the Brain Injury Association of North Carolina, and she knows a lot of people with similar problems. She’s upset about a bill that made it through the transportation committee Tuesday that would eliminate the requirement that adults on motorcycles wear helmets. The bill now goes onto the House judiciary committee.
“I ride a motorcycle when I get a chance,” said bill sponsor Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston) earlier this month.
“I wear a helmet – full face, full chin – because I’m in North Carolina, about three miles from South Carolina. It’s not uncommon to drive down there, stop, pull over, take the helmet off and put it in a bag and tie it on the motorcycle. It’s my choice; South Carolina provides that opportunity.”
Torbett argued that statistics about the number of people who die when riding without a helmet don’t tell the whole story, and he’s argued that some other states where adults aren’t required to wear a helmet have lower overall medical costs.
He also said that many motorcycle accidents only involve the rider, and riders should be able to make the choice about whether or not they wear a helmet.
“It’s about freedom of choice,” he said.
Traffic injury, fatality statistics debated
If passed, the bill would mandate helmets for riders under 21 years old and require riders to carry $10,000 of additional health insurance to cover the costs of potential brain-injury care. If a helmetless rider was found not to have the extra insurance, that rider could get a $25 ticket.
But supporters of the bill said targeting motorcyclists is unfair.
“There are more head injuries in auto accidents than there are in motorcycles, so why don’t auto drivers have to wear helmets?” asked Charlie Boone, vice president of the Concerned Bikers Association of North Carolina. Boone and other motorcyclists have opposed helmet laws and are advocating for the changes proposed by Torbett.
While it’s true there are more injuries to people driving cars, there are vastly more people driving cars overall than riding motorcycles. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motorcycles comprise less than 3 percent of registered vehicles in the U.S. and travel fewer than 1 percent of all highway miles.
But the same research found that motorcycle crashes make up 14 percent of all road traffic deaths and motorcyclists account for a higher percentage of people who suffer traumatic brain injuries as a result of road accidents.
And in states without a helmet mandate, motorcyclists who die are six times more likely to have been riding helmetless than in states with helmet laws.
“In 1997, there were 2,100 motorcycle deaths in the U.S. and 42,000 deaths in automobiles,” said Tom Crosby from the AAA Carolinas Foundation for Traffic Safety.
But he said now that so many states are repealing their helmet laws, the numbers of deaths on motorcycles are going up. And the cost of treating brain injuries is climbing too.
“In 2012, there were 4,500 deaths on motorcycles and only 32,000 deaths in automobiles,” Crosby said. “And there are more cars on the road. So motorcycle deaths are going up, even as traffic deaths overall are going down.”
He pointed to Florida, which repealed its helmet law in 2000: Hospital costs for head- and brain-injured motorcyclists went from $21 million to more than $50 million over two years. And death rates for riders under 21 tripled.
Crosby was upset that no opponents of the bill were given the opportunity to speak during Tuesday’s committee meeting.
Live it, teach it
If passed, the bill would make North Carolina only the third state to require additional insurance for riders, said Torbett.
Opponents of the bill argue an additional $10,000 insurance policy for riders is too low to cover the real costs of a potential brain injury.
“It depends on the severity of the injury, but it’s hundreds of thousands in acute-care hospitals and more hundreds of thousands in rehab,” said Farmer. “And the long-term care is estimated at around $4 million over a lifetime.”
“These catastrophic brain injuries almost inevitably end up going to Medicaid because families simply can’t afford the costs of long-term care,” she said. “So we all end up paying.”
Torbett and his supporters argue that they also take care of themselves by riding safely, and that rider education does more to prevent injury than helmets.
“I wear a lot of safety gear,” Boone said. “I have boots, I have chaps, I have coats, I have gloves, I have goggles. I choose what I need to wear on a day-to-day basis, based on what I’m doing. If they mandated that I wore any of this equipment, I’d oppose those laws also.”
“Education and awareness is the answer,” he said.
“The best helmet is no guarantee against injury, but the CDC found helmet use reduces incidence of brain injury by 67 percent,” said Bob Wagner, director of the North Carolina chapter of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. His organization does motorcycle-rider education, and he’s adamant that his instructors wear helmets.
“One thing I did when I took over is that I instituted a rule that everyone who teaches has to wear all the gear all the time they ride. If they teach in this state, they have to wear the gear all the time, because of the credibility issue,” Wagner said.
“We run into our students all the time. If you see one of your students in a motorcycle shop and you’re not wearing your equipment, you’ve basically told them that what you’re saying in class is wrong.”
Wagner said he has two instructors who are members of the Concerned Bikers Association, Boone’s group.
“If that law changes, rider-coaches will still be wearing helmets or they won’t be coaches any longer,” Wagner said. “If they can’t live it, they don’t need to teach it.”
Cover photo credit: Mike Rowehl, Wikemedia Creative Commons