Sunday, May 17, 1999

Helmet Issue Coming To A Head

By Lisa Taylor
Staff Writer - Carteret News/Times - North Carolina

"It's what you put in your head, not on it, that is important." - Fred Beaver, CBA past president

It's still illegal in North Carolina to ride a motorcycle without wearing a helmet, but if area members of the Concerned Bikers Association (CBA) and others have their way, that will change.

"It's what you put in your head, not on it, that is important,'' said Fred Beaver, past president and current member of the local CBA chapter. "An experienced (motorcycle) rider's driving skills are 100 percent better than someone driving a car.''

The helmet issue came to a head last month in Craven County when Superior Court Judge Clifton Everett dismissed charges against 11 area bikers opposed the law were ticketed last year during a "protest run.''

The 11 were represented in court by attorney by Bob Donat, an attorney for CBA and for Aid to Injured Motorcyclists (AIM). He successfully argued that the state's law was unconstitutional. Judge Everett dismissed the charges, saying that law and the technical specifications for helmets to be approved by the state Department of Motor Vehicles are "so vague, indefinite and uncertain that a person of ordinary intelligence cannot determine how to order his behavior and has not been given fair notice of what is forbidden or required.''

The state has appealed the decision and, according to District Attorney David McFadyen, Judge Everett's ruling does not change the law.

"There is no new law, and the law has not been overturned,'' Mr. McFadyen said. "It is still in effect.''

He said the judge's ruling applied only to the 11 cases he heard, and that those who were in court can be charged again if they ride motorcycles without wearing helmets.

And that has happened.

Mr. Beaver, of Newport, was stopped twice and ticketed once recently in Craven County. Butch Harrison and wife, Cynthia Marie Harrison, were stopped in Morehead City just last week.

While some officers are not writing tickets if the bikers put on their helmets, other are issuing tickets.

Some bikers believe that Judge Everett's ruling forces all district court and superior court judges to abide by his decision, but Mr. McFadyen says that is not the case.

"He doesn't have that authority. He can't bind other judges,'' Mr. McFadyen said. "A superior court judge's ruling only effects the case that is under his review, unless he entered a restraining order within his jurisdictional power, which he didn't do.''

He said the state automatically filed an appeal because the court struck down a state statute. Once the appeals court rules, the Craven County case can be appealed to the State Supreme Court by whichever party loses.

"That essentially will be the last appeal.''

LEGISLATION

But bikers are fighting on two fronts, first, through the Craven County case and secondly, through the proposed Motorcycle Safety Act, which was introduced during this session of state General Assembly.

The proposed legislative changes to the helmet law would give choice to bikers 21 years old or older who have had a motorcycle endorsement on the driver's licenses for more than 12 months. Additionally, the bill increases from $3 to $5 an additional tax on private motorcycle registration to fund the Motorcycle Safety Instruction Program.

Those fees do not fully fund motorcycle safety programs. Riders must still pay out of their pockets for the classes.

Most riders believe that experience and biker training are critical to safe riding.

The Harrisons, CBA members from Newport, said they and other bikers are genuinely concerned about what they call "Ninja bikers with no experience who drive recklessly, make a lot of noise and scare other motorists.''

"We want experienced and educated riders, 21 years old or older, to have the freedom of choice,'' said Mr. Beaver.

"We don't have any hard feelings about that,'' Mr. McFadyen said. "But while it is still the law, it will be enforced.''

"We're cooperative. We're not belligerent,'' Mr. Beaver said. "We're not going to buck it, we're going to try to change it.''

SAFETY, ECONOMICS

"The law was put in place for their safety, and we look at it strictly from a safety standpoint,'' said Highway Patrol First Sgt. Allen Smith, whose troopers also have been encountering bikers riding without helmets.

First Sgt. Smith and others say states with mandatory helmet laws see fewer motorcycle injuries and reduced medical and other costs associated with those injuries, including costs to taxpayers.

"It all comes down to economics. Like the seat belt law. When that was enacted, the number and severity of injuries went down,'' he said.

Those in favor of a mandatory helmet law for all riders cite statistics that show hospitalization and related medical expenses for un-helmeted riders involved in crashes are higher than for those wearing helmets because of brain injuries.

They say un-helmeted riders cost more to treat at the hospital, spend more time in rehabilitation and are more likely to require some form of public assistance to pay for medical bills and rehabilitation.

In 1991, before California enacted its helmet law, the state's medical insurance program paid $40 million for the treatment of motorcycle-related head injuries. That figure dropped to $24 million after its law was enacted, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Medical costs for motorcyclists in North Carolina are paid not only out of insurance, which is higher for motorcycle owners than for most car owners, but also out of a "risk pool'' which is funded through motorcycle insurance premiums.

Bikers cite other studies showing that drivers and occupants in 100 automobile accidents suffered more head injuries and head injury deaths than motorcycle riders involved in 100 crashes.

CHOICE

Some who are protesting the mandatory helmet law actually choose to wear helmets, others argue that they limit vision and hearing and can actually increase injuries in some crashes. But all were united in their belief that experienced riders should be able to choose for themselves.

"There are a lot of issues out there, and there are a lot of things in this country people just swallow,'' Mr. Beaver said. "But one day they are going to reach out and grab you and take another one of your freedoms."

More Info: Concerned Bikers Association


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