The state House Transportation Committee heard debate Tuesday on a proposal to do away with the mandatory helmet law for motorcyclists 21 and older.
The measure, House Bill 109, is sponsored by Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, a motorcyclist himself.
"I wear a helmet because I’m in North Carolina," Torbett told the committee. But as soon as he crosses the South Carolina border, he said, he pulls over and takes it off. "It’s a choice for me."
Torbett suggested that, if the purpose of the helmet law is truly safety, then the state should require pedestrians and even automobile drivers and passengers to wear helmets, too.
“It just looks safer with a helmet on," Torbett said. "Once you reach a certain rate of speed, I would doubt full body armor could protect you."
Doc Ski with the Concerned Bikers Association of North Carolina spoke in favor of the repeal.
"This is not about the helmet. We’re not anti-helmet; we’re pro-choice," he said. "It's about allowing mature, responsible riders to make the choice themselves."
Public health advocates spoke against the proposal.
Tom Vitaglione with Action for Children NC said a similar rollback in Florida recently led to a 40 percent increase in motorcycle crashes involving brain injury, costing the state's Medicaid system an additional $22 million.
Florida's law, like H109, still requires young riders to wear helmets. But Vitaglione said law enforcement there found the helmet age limit impossible to enforce in practice.
Vitaglione also cited a poll by the Governor's Highway Safety Council showing that 78 percent of motorcyclists favor keeping the helmet law.
WakeMed Trauma Center Director Dr. Osi Udekwu said it's clear to trauma doctors that helmets reduce the risk of death and serious head injuries in motorcycle crashes at any speed.
"We feel that everybody deserves the best possible protection," he said. "If we can prevent even one injury or one death, physicians stand on that side. We should do the right thing for the people of North Carolina."
Udekwu also warned lawmakers about the costs of more traumatic brain injuries if helmets are no longer required.
"The cost to society will exceed millions of dollars," he said. "That is a cost that we all bear."
The measure would require motorcyclists to carry at least $10,000 in medical insurance, but Rep. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell, recommended increasing that amount, noting that "$10,000 is about the same as no coverage at all."
Torbett said he wasn't surprised that doctors are against the repeal, but he said he doesn't believe the data prove that helmets make riders any safer.
"We’re not saying don’t wear a helmet. We’re just giving you the freedom," said Torbett, adding that 31 other states have no helmet requirement for adults.
The committee didn't vote on the bill Tuesday. It could come back up next week.