Photo credit Jason Edward Scott Bain, flickr creative commons
Photo credit Jason Edward Scott Bain, flickr creative commons

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By Rose Hoban

Legislative committee members heard a bill Wednesday to remove North Carolina’s requirement that motorcycle riders over the age of 21 wear a helmet.

And once again, lawmakers decided that it was a bad idea to eliminate the safety measure.

Rep. John Torbett (R-Stanley) introduced a bill similar to one he proposed in 2013 that would have required riders to carry $10,000 more in insurance coverage along with lifting the helmet restriction.

“Sixty percent of states already allow freedom of choice,” Torbett said. “It’s estimated it’ll bring in tourism dollars from neighboring states, keeping local money from going to South Carolina, which does not have a mandatory helmet law.”

He also argued that in states with “freedom to choose,” insurance rates were lower.

But Torbett’s proposal found little support, even among his fellow Republicans.

“I’ve been here a long time. This bill has come up and come up and come up, and we’ve had debates about what would be the right thing to do and we’ve had doctors come up here, and all of them say it is the worst idea in the world not to wear a helmet when you ride a motorcycle,” said Rep. Leo Daughtry (R-Smithfield). “We make people wear seat belts. I think it’s the least thing we can do to require people to wear helmets when they ride motorcycles.”

In the past, public health advocates and emergency doctors have shown up to present data to support North Carolina’s helmet bill. But this time, the bill was heard at almost 8 p.m., with little notice. So it was left to Torbett’s fellow legislators to bring up arguments against his proposal.

Rep. Darren Jackson (D-Raleigh) said he was in the process of reading an article in the North Carolina Medical Journal about motorcycle helmets when he received notice of the bill being sent to the Committee on Rules, Calendar, and Operations of the House.

Rep. Darren Jackson (D-Raleigh) holds up a photo of his childhood friend who died as the result of a motorcycle accident. His friend was not wearing a helmet. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“The conclusion of the study was that North Carolina’s universal motorcycle helmet law provides key benefits in terms of reduced traumatic brain injury, hospitalization in North Carolina and averted hospital charges,” he read. “We can argue how much money helmet laws save the citizens of this state, but it is a figure.”

Jackson sat at the committee table with a helmet in front of him. He explained it came from the head of someone who was hit by a car, flew 20 feet and had substantial injuries, but no head injury.

Then Jackson held up a photograph.

“This is a picture of my friend from elementary school,” he said. “He got killed in South Carolina where they don’t have a helmet law. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.”

Jackson admitted he didn’t know if the helmet would have saved his friend, but that “he would not have had a closed casket at his funeral if he’d had a helmet on.”

Torbett attempted to argue that more people wearing helmets die in motorcycle accidents than those who don’t, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But a closer look at the numbers finds that the rate of death among riders wearing helmets is much lower than that of riders not wearing helmets.

“On average, states with a universal helmet law save 8 times more riders’ lives per 100,000 motorcycle registrations each year, compared to states without a helmet law, and save 3 times more riders’ lives per 100,000 motorcycle registrations each year, compared to states with a partial helmet law,” reads the main page on motorcycle safety on the CDC website.

In North Carolina, the CDC estimates about 80 lives saved for each 100,000 licensed motorcycle drivers.

Even though the CDC notes more people wearing helmets died, that’s because more people ride with helmets than without. Overall, the rate of death was higher for people not wearing the helmets.

The bill failed on a voice vote, but not before Rep. James Boles (R-Southern Pines) quipped that the bill was the “only jobs bill for my profession.”

Boles is a funeral director.

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