Minnesota is usually in the forefront on state-by-state comparisons of important public health measures. But when it comes to one critical lifesaving law -- requiring helmets for all motorcycle riders -- Minnesota and its Midwest neighbors lag far behind Mississippi, Alabama and many other southern and western states.

A look at a U.S. map of helmet laws shows a striking and disturbing regional disparity on helmet laws that experts can't explain. Nineteen states, most of them clustered in the Southeast and on the West Coast, have so-called "universal helmet laws." Everyone who rides has to take this important precaution against the traumatic brain injuries that cyclists often suffer if there's an accident.

But 28 states, including Minnesota, have much weaker laws; typically they require only younger riders to wear helmets. And three states, including Iowa and Illinois, require no helmet at all. Minnesota requires helmets for riders with instructional permits or those who are under 18, according to a recent Star Tribune story by Mary Lynn Smith and Paul Walsh. Other states with limited helmet laws include Wisconsin, and North and South Dakota.

Unfortunately, it took the heartbreaking death of a vibrant, young Minnesota motorcyclist to spotlight lax helmet laws here. Brittany Larson, a 22-year-old student from White Bear Lake, was riding home from work on June 6 when her bike hit road debris and she was struck by an SUV.

Larson, who attended Century College, wasn't wearing a helmet. Her mother, Inge Sebyan Black, said her daughter died of multiple traumatic injuries. But Sebyan Black believes that a helmet could have "made a difference.''

"People are saying that it wouldn't have mattered, but they don't know the whole story,'' said Sebyan Black, whose voice trembled as she recounted the process of identifying her daughter's body. "We didn't see bodily injuries. We saw head injuries.''

As Larson's family prepared for her funeral last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new report detailing how universal helmet laws save lives and provide economic benefits by, for example, preventing expensive and often taxpayer-provided medical care for injured motorcyclists. The report, which compiled evidence from multiple sources, said that helmet use in 2010 "saved the lives of 1,544 motorcyclists, and an additional 709 lives might have been saved if all motorcyclists had worn helmets.'' The report estimated $3billion in economic savings from helmet use in 2010.

Minnesota Department of Public Safety statistics show that the majority of motorcyclists killed in Minnesota over the past decade were not wearing helmets. A total of 574 Minnesotans have died in motorcycle accidents over the past 10 years.

Minnesota was one of many states that reduced helmet requirements in the 1970s after federal transportation funding incentives for all-rider requirements went away. But back then, few people wore seat belts and few parents strapped kids into car seats.

Now we know better, and those protective measures for car passengers -- who have the added protection of a vehicle if there's a crash -- are mandated. It's time for Minnesota to bring its helmet laws into the present. A universal helmet requirement should get a high-priority airing during the next legislative session. So should a proposal from state Rep. Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis, that would require increased insurance coverage for helmet-less motorcyclists.

Minnesota should be a leader, not a laggard, on this critical public health issue.


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