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Road Worrier: NC helmet and work-zone bills balance freedom and danger

Crews work on the first phase of the state Department of Transportation’s $130 million rebuild of Raleigh’s southern Beltline.
Crews work on the first phase of the state Department of Transportation’s $130 million rebuild of Raleigh’s southern Beltline. N.C. DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION

State Rep. Jeffrey Elmore isn’t alone in his urge to inject thrills into the humdrum world of highway safety.

Elmore, a Wilkes County Republican, argued before a House committee last week that it should be OK to ignore the solid-yellow, no-passing stripe when a slowpoke garbage truck or bicyclist is in the way. After debate that elicited both enthusiasm and alarm, he said he would rework his bill.

Every other year, our legislature entertains exhortations to unshackle the repressed motorist. There are calls to push bikes or mopeds off the roads, make school bus drivers go faster, or bump up the speed limit for everybody. And we can always count on a plea to free bikers from their helmets.

Now comes Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Surry County Republican, with legislation that targets the inconvenience of highway work zones.

The state Department of Transportation reduces the speed limit and warns violators of a $250 penalty in work zones, with an eye to protecting construction workers.

Stevens’ bill says drivers should sometimes be allowed to ignore the work-zone warnings. The $250 violation should apply only when “workers are present and work is actively in progress at the time of the violation,” her bill says.

This might sound fair. After all, workers are not at risk if they’re not out there working.

But drivers can’t always see whether work is under way at the moment. A three-year project to rebuild Raleigh’s southern Beltline is an 11.5-mile work zone, sometimes with construction around the clock. You might drive for a few miles without seeing a hard hat – and then, around the next bend, there’s a work crew.

Dennis Jernigan, a DOT construction engineer overseeing the Beltline job, points out that slower speed makes this work zone safer for drivers, too. Concrete barriers have replaced shoulders, and travel lanes have been shrunk from 12 to 11 feet wide. So drivers really do have less margin for error – and more risk of a high-speed accident.

Speaking of the urge to ignore safety: Members of both chambers are making the perennial push to end North Carolina’s universal motorcycle safety helmet law. Their expected point person is Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican and motorcyclist who has pushed similar legislation in the past.

The proposal, echoing laws in 28 states, would limit the safety helmet requirement primarily to motorcycle riders younger than 21 years old. Older drivers could enjoy the wind in their hair if they carried at least $10,000 worth of medical insurance coverage, and if they had a year of motorcycle experience or had taken a safety class.

For those few motorcyclists who would still have to wear helmets, the penalty for violation would be reduced from the already-minimal to the inconsequential: a $25.50 fee, no court costs.

Epidemiologist Stephen Marshall, who heads the Injury Prevention Research Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, says his federal funding obligates him to point out both sides of this issue.

On one side, Marshall acknowledges, the helmet bill would let motorcyclists “exercise their right to choose whether or not to wear a helmet.” On the other side, motorcyclists without helmets would be more likely to suffer serious head injuries in crashes.

“Scientifically, we’ve got a lot of experience now with what happens in states when this type of legislation is enacted,” Marshall said. “What usually happens is, there’s an increased cost associated with this. And part of the increased cost is borne by taxpayers.”

In a medical journal study to be published this spring, Marshall and colleagues have put dollar values on the helmet law, using North Carolina hospital data from 2011:

▪  Average hospital charge for a motorcycle-related traumatic brain injury: More than $80,000, or well above that proposed $10,000 insurance minimum.

▪  Estimated traumatic brain injury hospital admissions prevented by North Carolina’s universal helmet law: 200 per year.

▪  Average total hospital charges averted by the law: $25 million to $30 million per year. Estimated taxpayer share of these annual medical cost savings: $10 million.

So these legislative proposals balance danger with freedom.

Let me scoot around that slow moped, and maybe I won’t run into another driver just over the next hill. Don’t hassle me with this work-zone warning, because I don’t see any workers.

Let me take off my helmet, and I probably won’t crash.

“Our representatives have to make a decision here about the millions of dollars in additional costs to the state and its taxpayers – how that negative weighs against the positive of an individual’s right to ride a motorcycle without a helmet,” Marshall said.

Torbett, Stevens, Elmore and other legislative sponsors did not return calls seeking comment.