Photo credit: Mike Rowehl, Wikemedia Creative Commons

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.

Photo credit: Donald Lee Pardue, courtesy flickr creative commons
Photo credit: Donald Lee Pardue, courtesy flickr creative commons

“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.”

Rep. John Torbet (R-Gaston)
Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston)

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.

Percentage of motorcyclist fatalities in which riders were not wearing helmets, by state — United States, 2008–2010. Data: CDC
Percentage of motorcyclist fatalities in which riders were not wearing helmets, by state — United States, 2008–2010. Data: CDC

“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

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...

27 replies on “Motorcycle Helmet Repeal Bill Passes First Mile Marker”

  1. So, freedom of choice is just fine when it comes to whether or not to wear a motorcycle helmet, but not when choosing for oneself whether or not to have an abortion.

    STOOPID, authoritarian Republicans!

  2. Some one that is support the dumb move explain the difference between helmet laws and the law requiring seat belts be wore. You pass this and it’s only a matter of time some lawyer files suit so he can get his name in the paper!

  3. I think its utterly stupid to require seat belts in cars but its ok not to wear a helmet on a bike. MORONS

  4. **I thought the point of government was to allow representation from all sides of an issue. Seems the Republican led NC govt has decided otherwise. That is how people who cannot defend their positions would be expected to behave.*** Sad.

    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.

  5. If we have to wear seatbelts, which of course has saved many lives, why the heck would we allow someone to ride a motorcycle without a helmet. When I was young my dad worked at what was then called a mental hospital or an asylum. Not having helmets was great for business – young guys being institutionalized the rest of their lives.
    Make people get their family to sign a release saying they commit to caring for the person for their entire lives and don’t allow any government programs to cover their injuries.

    1. Yeah repeal them stinking seat belt laws too ..Man it was always fun sailing thru the glass down the long lonely highway…

    2. That’s the problem with this country these days people saying “why the heck would we allow” and letting the Government control more and more of the land of the “Free” making it the land of “we know what’s best for you”
      Wearing a helmet or seatbelt as and adult should be choice the only life you endangering is your own! Not like the morons texting and driving and killing other people as well as themselves and getting away a slap on the wrist if anything.

    3. I were a helmet and it is my job to watch for every thing but ass holes in 4 wheelers have caused to of my accidents no respect for bikes ran me off road came in to my lane before they got past me. I think people should have to take motorcycle road test also and cars get to slam on brakes in front of them and see how many of them like it…..aka… the people in the cars never stopped to check on me my ins.. payed my rates went uphow is that fair

  6. I lost a brother to a motorcycle accident. My mother was dating a Professional Soccer player who lost half of his foot, due to a motorcycle wreck.
    A motorcycle is a dangerous machine as it is, and the road hazards, weather conditions, incompetent drivers, and unpredictable mishaps are just the start of the reasons why you need a helmet, leather, and other padding while riding.

    C’mon, it’s not cool to be dead. If you have a brain, protect it with a helmet.

  7. The hell with $10K in extra insurance… I want my fellow bikers that don’t use helmets to pay for ALL medical expenses out of pocket. We’ll just call it a stupidity tax.

  8. I have been riding modpeds, scooters, motorcycles since 12 years old. with and without helmets. I have broken bones, cracked ribs, scrapes and everything else. Thank goodness I was wearing a helmet when I last bounced my head off the black top. I live in SC which has no helmet law and also low IQ.
    Do no repeal the helmet law. The cost to the state will double for all the health issues it will face..

  9. Wow, this is great. The only exception should be that anyone not wearing a helmet must be a organ donor. Republican donor bait. Maybe he already fell down and the resulting brain condition is generating this new death opportunity. Why should society be forced to pay the medical expenses for total stupidity. Smokers are penalized on insurance why not helmetless riders.

  10. Bob Boland, there is a helmet law in S.C. and it does not state that you are “not” to wear a helmet. Why not require drivers of small automobiles to carry extra insurance? They are more likely to be seriously injured if they are involved in a collision than a large vehicle. The figures that are stated are selectively taken to argue the opposition’s points. Figures don’t lie, but liars do figure. Next will be a study citing seat belt wearers don’t violate any traffic laws, therefore the argument can be made that nonwearers and motorcyclists should subsidize all others on the highways. It appears to be okay to discriminate against certain minorities, but not others.

  11. Why is this article being offered in the health news section when it is clearly a political item? A slant on news? Heaven forbid! Let’s continue down this path and decide what’s best for others. I know, let’s start with mandatory rubber mats in showers, then we can move on to safety harnesses for all ladders . . .

  12. I believe in seat belts and helmets. It is disgusting to remember the sight of bodies thrown from vehicles during a wreck and then mutilated when crushed by their own vehicles passing over them. Safety helmets not worn have caused coworkers to have their skulls crushed in industrial accidents and motorcycle helmets not worn have caused their brains to be spilled onto the pavement. Ask any police officer or first responder for their opinions based on what they have seen.

  13. Crack – Splat: Well, there goes another head to the brilliant rules of motorcycle riding. They will probably sue the homeowner who had a tree in their yard.

  14. You only need a helmet if you have something worth protecting. Perhaps some of these folks don’t.

    When I lived in Charlotte and worked in Rock Hill, I’d hit the SC line on my motorcycle and absolutely nothing changed for me. All the gear all of the time. I’d rather wipe off sweat than blood.

  15. A ‘no helmet’ law leads to more organ donations. It all evens out . . . in the end.

  16. I think most of the NC politicians in Raleigh must have not worn helmets at one time when they road motorcycles. Which proves in NC politics you don’t really need a brain so pass the law that says no more brain buckets allowed on the road. Wont make any difference the same brainless ones will rise to the top.

  17. Motorcyclists may want freedom of choice, but, so do I. I want the choice to not subsidize their medical costs with my higher insurance premiums.

  18. The very idea of saying that requiring an additional $10,000 of insurance coverage is a sufficient alternative to helmet laws and potential head trauma cases, given the costs of medical care these days, is ludicrous. $10k doesn’t cover outpatient ankle surgery, much less head trauma.

    Do “no helmet” advocates stop to think of the damage to their loved ones if they are left useless when they could have avoided it? Also, do they stop to consider that their argument is exactly the same used by advocates of de-criminalizing marijuana? “It’s really harmless, it harms no one else, so it should be my choice.”? Perhaps we should repeal seatbelt laws as well.

    It’s also interesting that the same legislature considering this action is also considering a bill to require people who want a divorce to wait two years instead of one, require mandatory counseling sessions, and stipulate that they cannot have sex even once without having to start the whole process over again. So, the Legislature can require you to stay married against your will, but can’t require you to wear a helmet?

    I think the Representative from Gaston County is already suffering from head trauma.

  19. Brain injury is the main cause of death in an accident. Helmets must be therefore are a must to wear for safety purpose. Here is a website that offers you a complete safety helmet in this regard. To check out more click here at Skateboarding Helmet

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