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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.

In 2009, there were 4,462 motorcycle crash-related fatalities in the United States—more than twice the number of motorcycle rider fatalities that occurred in 1997. This increase contrasts with a 27-percent reduction in the number of fatalities in passenger cars and light trucks. Graph courtesy National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

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.

“Styrofoam”

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.

To see the NHTSA report on motorcycle safety, click on the image above.

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.

Rose Hoban

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...

6 replies on “Motorcycle Helmet Bill Zooms Through NCGA Committee”

  1. These statistics are purely speculative (for NC) because you can’t compare motorcycle accidents with helmets to those without. This is because we’ve had helmet laws since at least 1969 (see State of North Carolina v Kenneth Calvin Anderson. CITE AS: 275 N.C. 168, 166 S.E.2D 49, No. 7. Supreme Court of North Carolina, March 12, 1969). It sounds like these “medical professionals” are more worried about the money than the motorcycle enthusiasts as all they point to is the money. Additionally, the current law is pretty hard to enforce (and is vague). I opine that a good number of LEOs cannot tell the difference from even a short distance between a DOT helmet (required by law) and a novelty (non-DOT) helmet. I also have to wonder how many of these providers of medical statistics actually ride a motorcycle? Helmets don’t save lives…training does! If you made the same training we motorcyclists go through mandatory for automobile drivers, you would REALLY see a drop in accidents, etc. I’m 55 and ride almost every day. After a military career of over 20 years, I deserve the freedom of not only what kind of helmet to wear but also whether to wear one at all…it’s my motorcycle, my insurance and MY LIFE! (let me) RIDE FREE!

    1. Amen brother, give me the choice so I can ride free for this is part of my therapy.

      Army “Thunderbolt”

  2. It should be our choice to wear a helmet or not. Most seasoned riders will make the correct choice when to wear one or not. Lets get the bill passed. Live Free or Die.

  3. Both the previous commenters clearly live in the ‘alternative facts’ world, where one’s own opinion substitutes for scientific evidence.

    I have ridden a motorcycle since 1960 (which, somehow, seems to endow me with wisdom that nobody else has!). I also happen to understand how to analyze data, have looked at the spike in deaths following repeal of helmet laws, the drop in fatalities when those laws are reinstated, and evaluated impressively conducted MC rider training courses (Hint: they do almost no good in preventing crashes, but even if they did, the most expert riders still crash–often because of their own errors. Having a helmet on one’s head when that happens reduces the chances of leaving children with nobody to support them, grandchildren without a beloved grandparent, a spouse to cater to one’s needs as a lifelong brain-injury victim who also costs the states’ taxpayers millions more than $10,000). And … regardless of the detailed nuances of legislator-crafted bills (DOT-approved and all that), when there is a helmet law, use is nearly universal. When not, it ranges from 50-60%.

    The argument against MC helmet laws is vacuous, on all counts!

  4. I agree: let the individual choose to wear or not wear a helmet. BUT, absolve everyone else on the road of any extra liability in case of accident. In other words, determine the extent of damage caused due to lack of a helmet. I can just see huge lawsuits by individuals and their families based on the person being in a vegetative state after an accident where the likelihood could have been minimized by use of a helmet. I’d never ride without a helmet – that’s my personal choice.

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