Winston-Salem Journal

L O C A L  N E W S

Fri, Apr 6, 2001

State Democrats keep a lid on motorcycle-helmet issue
Latest bid to give riders a choice is brought down by House panel opponents

By David Rice

RALEIGH. An effort to allow motorcycle riders go without helmets in North Carolina wrecked in a state House committee yesterday as Democratic leaders made sure they had the votes to kill it.

• Motorcycle Safety Act
With bikers in black leather crowding the committee room and Republicans talking about freedom of choice, it was not a typical day for the House Finance Committee.

North Carolina is one of the 22 states that require all motorcycle drivers to wear helmets, but Rep. Rex Baker, R-Stokes, has crusaded for several years to do away with the requirement.

Baker contends that helmets impair riders' vision and hearing, and that leads to accidents.

"Overall, states with mandatory helmet laws have a disproportionate share of accidents and fatalities," he told the committee yesterday. "I'm saying, 'Let's not have an accident.'"

In states that have allowed riders to go without helmets, he said, "Accident rates are significantly lower. Fatality rates are about the same. I have to admit that there are instances where motorcycle helmets will save lives. But there are also examples where helmets will cause deaths due to neck injuries."

Baker's proposal would let bikers go without a helmet if they have had a motorcycle license for at least a year and are at least 21 years old.

It would also raise annual registration fees on motorcycles to pay for a motorcycle-safety instruction program.

Joy Barbour, a spokeswoman for the Concerned Bikers Association, a group that favors the repeal of the helmet law, said that seven states are considering helmet-choice laws this year.

But Dr. Jeff Runge, an emergency-room physician from Charlotte, told the committee that helmets prevent head injuries. Runge showed legislators a scraped, cracked helmet that was worn by a patient who hit his head against a car in a wreck - and survived.

"Imagine a head and hair and skin and a skull if that helmet were not in place," Runge said.

Runge agreed with Baker that there is little difference in the hospitalization costs of motorcycle-accident victims with and without helmets. But he said that on average, the total cost of a brain injury - including the installation of ramps at home, replacement of plumbing fixtures and treatment of urinary-tract infections caused by catheters - is $1.5 million. There are also other costs.

"Bones and skin mend," he said. "People without good brains cannot be gainfully employed, and they become a cost to the system." Runge said.

The medical-cost arguments appeared to sway Democrats on the committee. "The data seem pretty clear that the brain injuries are worse without a helmet," said Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham. "People survive as vegetables."

Democrats made sure they had leadership members present as "floater" members of the committee, and the bill died by a vote of 16-13 that fell largely along party lines.

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