The proposal would allow riders 21 and over to choose to ride without helmet as long as they have at least $10,000 in medical coverage in case of a wreck. The penalty for failing to have the required insurance would be a $25.50 ticket.
Bill sponsor Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, says 31 of 50 states have no helmet laws, and he called statistical differences between their motorcycle fatality rates and North Carolina's "minuscule."
"That shows that the helmet's not the answer," Torbett said. "When it comes to factual data, it's just not supported."
AAA Carolinas' Tom Crosby took issue with Torbett's statistics. Crosby, president of the group's Foundation for Traffic Safety, said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has rated North Carolina's helmet law the most effective in the country.
Additionally, Crosby said, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls the helmet requirement "the best, most effective safety measure to prevent traffic deaths."
When Florida recently passed a similar law, Crosby said, fatalities among motorcyclists under 21 nearly doubled. "And 75 percent of the ones who ended up in a hospital, their expenses were well over $10,000. It's very inadequate," he said.
"When you're the safest in the nation, why would you want to change it?" he asked. "It boggles the mind."
There are an estimated 200,000 motorcyclists in North Carolina.
The bill's supporters say it's a question of freedom of choice.
"If the person driving a motorcycle chooses not to wear a helmet and something happens, he's not hurting anybody but himself," said Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus.
Critics of the legislation say it's the state's taxpayers who end up footing the bill when a motorcyclist sustains a traumatic brain injury and becomes permanently disabled.
But motorcyclists insist that most TBIs are caused by falls, pedestrian accidents and even auto accidents, and the state is already paying for those.
Concerned Bikers Association state vice president Charlie Boone said it's "a liberty issue."
"Liberty is being able to chart your own course without fear of retribution from the state," Boone said after the hearing. "Helmets are not the answer. The education of motorists and motorcyclists is what saves lives."
Boone dismissed concerns about the potential costs to taxpayers for motorcyclists' injuries.
"That's what insurance is all about – spreading the risk out between all the different groups," he said.
"If you're really concerned about safety," he added, "put helmets on everybody. There are risks in life. You have to choose what your risks are, and if you're 21 and over, you should be able to make that choice for yourself."
Some lawmakers expressed concern that the insurance requirement is too low and that the slight penalty for violating the law would not be much deterrent to younger riders. But the measure passed with bipartisan support. Its next stop is in the House Judiciary Committee.
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