Motorcyclist dies after ignoring mom's pleas to wear helmet

Inge Black pledges to push for law mandating helmets for motorcyclists.

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Brittany Larson wore a helmet when she posed for a picture.

Brittany Larson wanted to feel the wind in her long hair as she rode her motorcycle rather than stuffing it under a helmet.

Now her mother is preparing to bury her 22-year-old daughter, who suffered extensive head injuries Wednesday when she hit road debris and was thrown into the path of a SUV on Interstate 694 in Ramsey County. Once she says her final goodbye, Inge Black pledged Thursday, she will push lawmakers to mandate helmets for motorcyclists.

"I am on a rampage about this. We need to pass a mandatory helmet law. She would've had to wear one," said Black, who added that she had sparred with her daughter about getting a helmet.

Requiring helmets for Minnesota motorcyclists has been debated for years, but the state currently requires helmets only for riders under 18 or those with instructional permits. Minnesota law does require all motorcyclists to wear eye-protective gear.

In response, lawmakers who share Black's concern are taking a new tack: Motorcyclists who don't wear helmets would have to carry more insurance.

"This would be a compromise," said state Rep. Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis. "I would prefer all motorcyclists to wear helmets. But at least right now, there's no political will."

"No helmet, no ride" laws were in effect in 20 states as of 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 27 states, only some people have to wear helmets.

Minnesota motorcycle groups gave their blessing for the protective eyewear law, but they have lobbied hard against mandatory helmet laws.

"It's a freedom issue," said Todd Riba, legislative director for American Bikers for Awareness, Training and Education of Minnesota. "If they put helmets on us, then who's next?" His group also opposes Loeffler's "compromise."

"It's discriminatory," Riba said. "Why not require those driving cars to wear helmets? It will improve their chances of surviving an accident."

Riba said his organization is "very passionate" about fighting for motorcyclists' right not to wear a helmet. "But it's not our main focus," he said, pointing out that his group pushes for programs, such as better training, to help prevent crashes. "Our primary concern is avoiding accidents."

Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, said motorcyclists peppered her with e-mails and phone calls when she sponsored the proposal.

"Minnesotans are very libertarian," she said. "They don't like rules and regulations. They believe it's their life and they can do what they want. But the cost to the state can be great. A lot of people who survive ... suffer from brain injuries."

And those head injuries often carry a heavy financial cost on both families and the state taxpayers who pay the medical bills for residents who can't. The state spent $40 million from 2001 to 2011 for those who suffered traumatic brain injuries in motorcycle crashes, said Jeff Nachbar, public policy director for the Minnesota Brain Alliance. "And that's just for emergency room and hospital costs," he said. "It doesn't include any long-term care."

Loeffler said people don't realize they will exhaust their savings before the state helps. "People who choose not to wear a helmet aren't necessarily thinking about the financial risk and what it really means is devastating all their life savings and the assets they've worked so hard to accumulate. I would prefer to prevent accidents and prevent injuries, but if people choose to take a risk, they need to protect themselves and their families."

The extra insurance cost could prompt more people to wear a helmet, advocates said.

According to the CDC, helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 69 percent. And in a motorcycle crash, a rider not wearing a helmet is 40 percent more likely to die from a head injury than someone wearing a helmet, the CDC states.

Young people "think they are infallible," said Black, as she remembered her "extremely feisty daughter" who resisted wearing a helmet. "She liked her long hair flowing, and now I've lost my daughter."

"She wasn't dressed properly for the bike," Black said. Her daughter was wearing flip-flops on her ride home to White Bear Lake from her new clerk's job in Columbia Heights. "I couldn't get her to dress right. She was having so much fun."

Black said the two of them fought Tuesday over wearing a helmet and had shopped unsuccessfully for one that fit. Black had even offered to drive her daughter to work on the day of the crash, but Larson said, "'Oh, no, I'm going to ride my motorcycle.'"

Larson was on eastbound Interstate 694 just east of I-35E when her bike clipped a piece of tire debris. She was thrown from the bike and killed.

At least 15 motorcyclists have died in Minnesota in 2012.

Riba said he understands the pain from such deaths but still opposes elmet laws.

"I have friends who died in motorcycle crashes and I wear their in-memory patches on my vest and jacket. I've gone to their funerals," he said. "I carry the funeral announcement of a friend who was killed by a drunk motorcyclist who hit my friend, killing him. ... I'm not insensitive to such deaths. My primary focus is keeping the drunk driver from crossing the center lane."

mlsmith@startribune.com • 612-673-4788 pwalsh@startribune.com • 612-673-4482

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