Legislation that would end North Carolina's mandatory helmet law and make it optional for riders age 21 and over won support from the majority in a divided state House panel Tuesday.
On a voice vote, the House Transportation Committee approved giving adults the choice to ride without a helmet if they have had a motorcycle license or endorsement for a year, completed a motorcycle safety course and have insurance covering $10,000 in medical benefits.
The measure, which now goes to a House judiciary panel, appears to run counter to recommendations and data from federal health officials and vehicle safety advocates. They say wearing helmets saves lives and saves the health care costs from head injuries that ultimately all insured people must pay.
Helmets are estimated to reduce by 37 percent the likelihood of a motorcycle crash death, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Motorcycle-related deaths have increased 55 percent since 2000, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
But some motorcycle groups argue fatality rates in states with strict helmet requirements aren't statistically different from those that have exceptions for adults or none at all.
"Liberty is being able to chart your own course without fear of retribution from the state, so this is a liberty issue," said Charlie Boone of Zebulon, vice president of North Carolina's Concerned Bikers Association. "The education of motorists and motorcyclists is what saves lives."
Boone's group and others have sought the freedom to ride with the wind in their hair for several years, and most of the measures introduced at the legislature went nowhere. Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, a motorcyclist and primary sponsor of the bill, said he chooses to take off his helmet when he rides into South Carolina, which also grants the option to 21-year-olds.
North Carolina is one of 19 states with universal helmet requirements for people on motorcycles, while the other states have partial requirements or have no use law, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Bill supporter Rep. Rodney Moore, D-Mecklenburg, said he would wear a helmet riding a motorcycle, but at age 21 someone "should be able to make a reasonable decision whether they want to wear a helmet or not."
Groups opposing the change disagree strongly with bikers' groups, saying a partial helmet law will lead to increased injuries and medical costs. They point to Florida, where a universal helmet law like what North Carolina now has was changed to a partial law in 2000. Hospitalizations due to motorcycle crashes rose by more than 40 percent and head injury treatments from those injuries doubled, according to AAA Carolinas.
Having a law that doesn't cover all motorcyclists also will make it difficult for law enforcement to determine who is breaking the law, the motor club said.
"My choice is I don't want to be bumping into a motorcycle rider without a helmet and he falls off and injures his head and something serious happens," AAA spokesman Tom Crosby said after the committee meeting.
Boone questioned why lawmakers aren't requiring automobile passengers to wear helmets, too. And a high percentage of traumatic brain injuries are attributed to falls, he said.
But Rep. Rick Catlin, R-New Hanover, said he worries about the cost to the public of traumatic brain injuries.
"Having had a motorcycle and wearing a helmet, it saved my life," he said.
Motorcycle operators who violate the scaled-back requirement would face an infraction, requiring a $25.50 fine. The current law requires the fine and court costs of $135.50, according to legislative researchers.