Road Worrier

Road Worrier: Families, taxpayers have stake in NC debate over helmets, freedom

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comApril 8, 2013 

— A few bikers pop up around the General Assembly every other year at springtime, suntanned and persistent, to lobby for their freedom. Their cause has been a perennial loser for a decade.

But this time their prospects are looking up. One legislative committee has endorsed their call to free most adults from North Carolina’s requirement that motorcycle riders wear safety helmets.

That might seem remarkable when you consider that the value of helmet laws is proven in a mountain of research from the Centers for Disease Control, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other agencies.

Helmets cut the risk of death by 37 percent and the risk of head injury by 69 percent in a motorcycle crash, the traffic safety agency says. Motorcycle helmets are credited with saving 1,544 lives in 2010, and saving the nation $3 billion in medical costs and economic losses.

But members of the House Transportation Committee did not discuss public health research when they considered North Carolina’s helmet law at two meetings last month. They mostly talked up the individual-freedom rationale: Let motorcyclists decide for themselves whether to be safe or sorry.

“My guess is, a safety instructor would say you would be better off with a helmet,” said Rep. John Torbett of Union County. “We’re just interested in the freedom.”

The committee endorsed Torbett’s bill to require helmets only for riders younger than 21, for older riders with less than a year of experience, and for riders who do not carry at least $10,000 in insurance coverage.

Carol Ornitz of Raleigh watched the committee proceedings, and now she shares the safety research with members of another House committee that will take up Torbett’s bill. She tells them about the lifetime cost – which can reach into the millions of dollars – of caring for someone with a severe brain injury.

Ornitz serves as chairwoman of the state Brain Injury Advisory Council. She worries that a few motorcyclists are leading legislators astray with this freedom-of-choice argument.

“When they make a choice about whether to wear a helmet or not, they’re also making a choice for their spouse or their children or parents – who might be in a position of caring for them for the rest of their lives, if they have a severe injury,” Ornitz said.

She speaks from personal experience, although motorcycles were not involved in her family’s case. It’s been eight years since her son crashed headlong into a telephone pole, after an accident in a bicycle race.

“This is what people like me are dealing with,” Ornitz said. “I’m going to be 70 in two years, and I’ve been sleeping in my son’s room for the last eight years. I’m up at night if he has a seizure. He doesn’t recognize who I am, some mornings. When I’m gone, the care my son’s going to need is going to be very long-term and very intensive.”

North Carolina is one of 19 states with mandatory helmet laws for all riders. National studies have shown that when states repeal their helmet laws, death and injury rates rise sharply. Hospital and rehabilitation costs rise, too, for families and taxpayers.

Some states require helmets for younger riders, as Torbett’s bill proposes for North Carolina. But half the motorcyclists who die in crashes are 40 or older, and their share is increasing. Safety advocates say that younger riders stop wearing helmets in those states, too.

“An age-specific helmet law is just unenforceable,” said Rob Foss, a senior researcher with the UNC Highway Safety Research Center in Chapel Hill. “You’re really repealing the law when you do that.”

Ornitz recognizes the libertarian appeal of the push to roll back the helmet law.

“That sounds nice, an ‘Easy Rider’ kind of thing,” Ornitz said. “But the reality is not pretty. Sitting in an intensive care unit with your loved one and not knowing if they’re going to live is enough stress – and then you realize it’s going to be forever.

“I think there will be a lot of heartache for folks if they let this go through.”

Make contact: 919-829-4527 or bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com. On the Web at twitter.com/Road_Worrier/ and blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown/. Please include address and daytime phone.

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