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Helmet-law advocates find support in stats

Supporters of a bill aimed at getting more motorcyclists to strap on a helmet are pointing to a recent federal study as evidence such a change is needed.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recently released a report that found fewer motorcyclists died in states with helmet laws and that $1.4 billion could have been saved if all motorcyclists wore a helmet.

Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, backs a proposal that would give motorcyclists a choice: Either wear a helmet or carry $250,000 in additional insurance. She said the research shows that the state pays costly medical bills for some motorcyclists who suffer serious injuries because they didn't wear a helmet.

"I have that libertarian streak in me," she said, "but as a legislator and an official, you have to weigh when it is your right to do what you want and when does your right impinge on the state or other people?"

The legislation faces fierce opposition from several motorcycle groups, including American Bikers for Awareness, Training and Education of Minnesota. Mike Berger is president of ABATE's Lake Chapter and serves on the state's Motorcycle Safety Advisory Task Force. He said only one in five motorcycle fatalities involves a head injury. He said requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets will only provide people with a false sense of security. The best way to prevent fatalities is to invest in education programs that give motorcycle riders the skills they need to be safe on the road.


"Absolutely we are going to be fighting against this type of legislation — not because we are against safety," he said. "This one-size-fits-all solution isn't looking at the entire problem. It simply is not something we are ever going to be behind."

In the U.S., 19 states have universal helmet law,s and 28 states — including Minnesota — have partial helmet laws that generally apply to younger riders. Three states — Iowa, Illinois and New Hampshire — have no helmet laws. Michigan lawmakers repealed that state's universal helmet law in April, replacing it with one that allows people 21 and older to ride without a helmet if they meet certain requirements, including carrying an additional $20,000 in medical insurance.

The CDC report looked at fatal crash data between 2008 and 2010. Of the 14,283 motorcyclist deaths, 12 percent occurred in states that require riders to wear helmets. Researchers also estimate that $1.4 billion could have been saved if all motorcyclists had worn helmets.

The report's release comes at a time when there has been a sharp increase in the number of motorcycle deaths compared to last year. So far, 17 riders have died compared to 10 at this time last year. Minnesota Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Stephanie Kaufenberg said the increase likely is because early spring weather brought motorcyclists out early. Also, she said, there are a record number of licensed riders.

State Rep. Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis, sponsored the helmet bill this session and plans to reintroduce it next session. She said she supports the idea of requiring all riders to wear a helmet, but at this point, "I don't think that is politically feasible."

She said her legislation is aimed at making motorcyclists take responsibility for their choice to not wear a helmet. She said she is working with insurers and hopes to have an estimate of what it would cost for motorcyclists to buy the additional $250,000 insurance policy required under her bill.

"Under this law, they would still retain the freedom to make that choice, but they don't take the taxpayers and/or their family's life savings along for the ride," she said.

Norton and Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, are co-sponsors of Loeffler's bill.


Some lawmakers say Loeffler's bill goes too far. Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said under this logic, the state could require anyone who does something potentially dangerous, like using a chainsaw, to start carrying additional insurance.

He added, "What this sounds like to me is more big government dreamed up by liberal legislators."

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