Freedom-loving motorcyclists renew fight against NC helmet law

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comMarch 12, 2013 

  • Helmet safety

    Motorcycle helmets cut the risk of death by 37 percent, and the risk of head injury by 69 percent.

    Helmet use saved the United States $3 billion in 2010, and another $1.4 billion could have been saved if all riders wore helmets.

    North Carolina ranked first among the states in 2010 in lives saved (80) and economic costs reduced ($163 million) for every 100,000 registered motorcyclists.

    Sources: Centers for Disease Control, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

— Motorcyclists who love the wind in their hair are pushing again for the freedom to ride without safety helmets in North Carolina, and they found support Tuesday from members of a state House committee.

North Carolina is one of 19 states where safety helmets are mandatory for all motorcyclists. Studies credit helmets with reducing deaths and serious brain injury in crashes, and a recent survey by the Governor’s Highway Safety Program found that 78 percent of motorcycle riders support the state law.

But opponents have tried to weaken or repeal the helmet rule in nearly every legislative session since the mid-1990s. This year their cause is led by a motorcycle-riding Republican from Gaston County.

Rep. John Torbett of Stanley enjoys the chance to ride across the state line into South Carolina, where helmets are required only for bikers 20 and younger. He parks his motorcycle and pulls off his full-face helmet.

“That’s my choice,” Torbett said Tuesday at a House Transportation Committee meeting. “That’s what I choose to do. South Carolina provides that opportunity.”

Torbett’s bill would require helmets only for the youngest riders. He proposed to let motorcyclists ride bareheaded when they turned 18, but he accepted a committee amendment that would match the South Carolina standard: helmets mandatory until age 21.

Personal freedom is the chief argument for opponents of the helmet law.

Torbett warned legislators that they would hear arguments about lives saved and insurance costs reduced by helmets, but the only safety statistics considered by the committee Tuesday came from Torbett himself.

Using data he attributed to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Torbett distributed a chart that depicted slightly higher death rates for motorcyclists in states with mandatory helmet laws, when compared with those in other states. That was welcome news for a couple of committee members who wanted to support his proposal for relaxed regulation.

“I agree with the bill sponsor on the freedom aspects,” said Rep. Frank Iler, a Republican from Oak Island, the committee co-chairman. “I had some safety concerns, but, apparently statistically, that may not be a problem.”

Dr. Pascal “Osi” Odekwu, a Raleigh surgeon who has served for the past 10 years as director of the WakeMed trauma unit, told the committee that “it is generally accepted around the world” that helmets save riders’ lives and make their injuries less serious, reducing medical and rehabilitation costs that often fall to taxpayers.

He said the initial hospital bill for a brain-injury patient can exceed $250,000.

“The long-term consequences of a single brain injury (patient) who becomes dependent on society will exceed millions of dollars,” said Odekwu, speaking for the N.C. Association of Emergency Room Physicians. “That is a cost that we all bear.”

Rep. George Cleveland, a Republican from Jacksonville, said he had read somewhere that where helmets are involved in crashes at speeds faster than 20 mph, “the actual safety factor goes away.”

Odekwu replied that emergency room doctors “feel that the protection makes a difference” in the crash speeds they deal with.

No committee members spoke in favor of the helmet law. A vote on Torbett’s bill was postponed until a future meeting.

The Concerned Bikers Association, with a North Carolina chapter claiming about 2,000 members, has lobbied legislators over the past decade to repeal the helmet rule for adult riders.

Charlie Boone of Zebulon, the group’s vice president, said he was optimistic about his prospects for success this year. Boone doesn’t accept that helmets are always safer.

“It’s a freedom of choice issue,” Boone said in an interview. “Sometimes a helmet can save you, sometimes it can kill you. People should be able to make the choice for themselves.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or or

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