The panel voted 9-8 to pass the bill sponsored by Rep. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald. The companion version was approved in the Senate last month.
The bill, which has failed in multiple legislative sessions, is headed for the House Finance Committee. Last year, when the bill stalled in that committee, perennial Senate sponsor Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, withdrew a similar measure from a Senate vote.
"We're a little disappointed we didn't have a bigger margin, but we appreciate the vote of the committee members," Mike Hayes, a volunteer lobbyist for Concerned Motorcyclists of Tennessee/ABATE, said after the vote.
Opponents of the bill have said the legislation would be costly to hospitals and family members caring for victims who may have suffered head injuries as a result of not wearing their helmets.
"The cost that goes along with taking care of people with head injuries is enormous," said Dr. Julie Dunn, an associate professor of surgery and director of trauma at Johnson City Medical Center. "And the impact to families would be enormous."
Officials at Vanderbilt University have placed the average cost of treating a non-helmeted motorcyclist at $63,956 between 2005 and 2006.
The rate of head injuries increased by 80 percent in Florida and 77 percent in Kentucky after those states rescinded their mandatory helmet laws, according to an analysis by the General Assembly's Fiscal Review Committee.
However, Hayes said those numbers are not accurate, especially when compared to those nationally.
"The cost we're showing on the national level does not come anywhere close to the numbers Tennessee folks have speculated," he said of hospital costs. "The national average is about $42,000."
Hensley said accidents are going to occur regardless of whether a person wears a helmet, and that the individual should have the freedom to decide what he or she wants to do. "This is America, and we were founded on freedom," Hensley said. "And this is just one other freedom that I think people should have." But committee member G. A. Hardaway, who voted against the bill, said the issue is about wearing a helmet to possibly save a life, not someone's freedom. "As long as they're saving one life, then they're well worth the sacrifice of freedom," said the Memphis Democrat.