NC House committee endorses helmets-optional law for most motorcyclists

RALEIGH Adult motorcycle riders would be free to ride without head protection under legislation, approved Tuesday by a House committee, to repeal North Carolina’s mandatory safety helmet law for most motorcyclists.

Helmets would be required only for motorcyclists younger than 21 and for inexperienced older riders who have been licensed to drive motorcycles for less than 12 months. Riders without helmets would have to carry enough insurance coverage to cover the first $10,000 of their medical bills from crash injuries.

Members of the House Transportation Committee agreed, in a divided voice vote, that North Carolina should join 31 other states that give most bikers the freedom to decide for themselves.

“I always wore a helmet to protect myself,” said Rep. Rodney Moore, a Charlotte Democrat who said he hasn’t driven a motorcycle in a few years. “But when you look at a person’s rights, they have a right to decide whether they want to wear a helmet or not. They should be able to make a reasonable decision.”

Another former motorcyclist argued in favor of mandatory head gear.

“I have concerns about the cost to the public of long-term brain injuries,” said Rep. Rick Catlin, a Wilmington Republican. “And having had a motorcycle myself and wearing a helmet, it saved my life before.”

He said later it had been many years since a crash in which he credited his helmet with saving him.

“I support the requirement in the law now,” Catlin said. “Motorcycles fall down a lot.”

Legislators did not ask for a review of crash safety studies from their staff or from state public health experts. Rep. John Torbett of Monroe, the bill sponsor, offered statistics to support his contention that helmet laws do not reduce injuries or medical costs.

But there were safety advocates in the audience who argued later that North Carolina’s helmet requirement is a big life-saver. Tom Crosby of Charlotte, president of the AAA Carolinas Traffic Safety Foundation, said the Centers for Disease Control ranked North Carolina tops in the nation for saving lives and cutting costs with its helmet rule.

“They say the helmet law is the most effective safety measure to prevent traffic deaths in the United States, and we’re number one,” Crosby said. “You wonder why, when you’re the safest in the nation, why would you want to change it?”

Rep. Larry Pittman, a Concord Republican, said motorcyclists should be allowed to accept the risk of injury.

“If the person chooses not to wear a helmet and anything happens, he’s not hurting anybody but himself,” Pittman said.

Carol Ornitz of Raleigh, who listened to the debate, countered Pittman’s argument in an interview. Ornitz is chairman of the state Brain Injury Advisory Council, which supports the current helmet requirement.

She cares for a son and a husband who suffered brain injuries in separate accidents that did not involve motorcycles. Every night she sleeps in her son’s room to watch out for seizures and other problems, she said.

“With serious head injuries, that is what happens: you become their caretakers,” Ornitz said. “So it’s not just your freedom. It’s the impact on the rest of your families, and also on the state.”

Torbett’s bill would reduce the current penalty for violations of the helmet law, to make it a $25.50 infraction. Violators no longer would have to pay $130 in court costs. Before it can become law, the legislation must be considered by the House Judiciary Committee, the full House and the Senate.

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