Motorcycle Deaths Hold Steady

In SuperFreakonomics: The Illustrated Edition, we explored the bizarre, unintended consequence of repealing motorcycle helmet laws: an increase in human organs available for transplantation.

Between 1994 and 2007, six states repealed laws that required all motorcyclists to wear helmets. Here's a look at per-capita organ donations from male victims of motor-vehicle crashes in those states versus all other states.


A new report shows that motorcycle deaths are not dropping. From the Wall Street Journal

A report released today by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) finds that no progress was made in reducing motorcyclist deaths in 2011. Based upon preliminary data from 50 states and the District of Columbia, GHSA projects that motorcycle fatalities remained at about 4,500 in 2011, the same level as 2010. Meanwhile, earlier this month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration projected that overall motor vehicle fatalities declined 1.7 percent in 2011, reaching their lowest level since 1949. Motorcycle deaths remain one of the few areas in highway safety where progress is not being made.

Furthermore, states are continuing to repeal helmet laws:

Another disturbing trend is the decrease in states with universal helmet laws. Helmet laws are the only motorcycle safety strategy whose effectiveness is rated as five-star in NHTSA’s highly-regarded publication, “Countermeasures That Work.” Only 19 states currently require all riders to wear helmets, down from 26 in 1997. Earlier this year, Michigan repealed its universal helmet law, while similar legislation has been introduced in five other states. No state has enacted a universal helmet law since Louisiana reinstated its requirement in 2004.

Guess that’s good news for anyone who might need an organ transplant in Michigan?

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  1. frankenduf says:

    did u control for texting while motorcycling?

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  2. RJ Roy says:

    The article talks about fatalities dropping, but I wonder about the change in the number of accidents and crashes in general. If the number of crashes in 2011 held steady or went up, then the cause of fatality dropping is due to increased security features in automobiles. Features which are impossible to be installed on a motorcycle.

    Even with a helmet, a motorcyclist is much more likely to suffer fatal injuries in an accident of similar “scale” as a car driver might see, simply due to the fact that the driver is entirely exposed. Unless crashes were eliminated, I wouldn’t actually expect motorcyclist fatality numbers to drop by any significant amount.

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    • pawnman says:

      Bingo. After you reduce accidents to a certain point, it becomes incredibly difficult to stop that last few percent. The only way to keep reducing motorcycle fatalities is to get fewer people riding motorcycles

      I’m also curious…the post says 4,500 fatalities, the same as the previous year…were there more, fewer, or the same number of overall motorcyclists the previous year? In other words, was there a percentage increase or decrease even though the number of deaths remained steady?

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      • William Furr says:

        Um, no.

        The key safety “feature” that’s missing from automobiles is an attentive driver. Increasing the liability, civil and criminal, of inattentive drivers would likely make a lot more progress in reducing traffic fatalities than any additional gadgets in cars or on motorcycles.

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  3. Eric M. Jones says:

    There are rules that make great sense for society but absolutely NO sense for the individual. Organ donation is one of them. I sure would like to donate my organs on the condition that Doctors always made the right decision.

    I was advised to put a DNR on my dad’s chart because he had been without respiration or heartbeat for 11 minutes and he was comatose. He sure was pissed at me when he recovered 99.9%.

    But Dad….!!!

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  4. Mike B says:

    Why is saving people from their own poor decisions considered “progress”.

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    • Brian says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • James says:

        The problem with your analysis is that you’re the one getting to decide what is a benefit. You’ve decided that reducing the risk of dying from head injuries in a motorcycle crash – or falling off my horse or bicycle, running into a tree while skiing, or any of the many other activities for which the safety-made would like us all to wear helmets – is somehow a benefit to you. As above, though, rational analysis suggests that the benefit is the other way around: more transplantable organs (and healthy ones, on the whole), plus lower population, a reduced pool drawing Social Security benefits…

        We could also turn your argument around and point it at you: obesity and poor physical condition are far larger causes of premature death than the failure to wear helmets. Have you been overdoing the high-calorie foods lately? Getting your recommended amount of exercise? If not, our health cops will be stopping by your place shortly, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy your beneficial stretch in couch potato boot camp :-)

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      • tmeier says:

        The problem with your analysis is there must be some rights which can not be abrogated otherwise the desire of the majority can become oppression. The problem is as old as democracy, the very first thing the ancient Athenians did with their new democratic government was count heads and discover the city dwellers outnumbered the farmers. Then they voted all taxes should be paid by farmers. The only thing that stopped them was the farmers arming themselves and defying them to collect. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

        There are things no majority should have the power to impose on you.

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      • Mike B says:

        Why can’t I live in a world where any rejection of the nanny state isn’t automatically equated with Ayn Rand? Allowing individuals that have a propensity toward aggressive behavior and irrational risk taking to remove themselves from the breeding population while at the same time supplying much needed donor organs not only preserves individual freedom, but also provides benefits to society at large. It’s a win win.

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    • Travis says:

      Because the cost of their poor decision is shouldered by the public in general. Everything from the person who they collided with have a larger emotional burden knowing that they killed another person, to the actual hospital and EMT costs trying to save / resuscitate the motorcyclist.

      It’s a problem with modern society, because people have two types of problems, genetic and behavioral, and in most cases it’s impossible to separate the two, and even if we did most doctors would find it unconscionable to just let an individual die because they didn’t have insurance, for example.

      As soon as we can eliminate (or internalize) negative externalities entirely, then regulations on risky behavior will have no more place. Until then, they are definitely “progress.”

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      • James says:

        “…the person who they collided with have a larger emotional burden knowing that they killed another person…”

        You suppose they maybe should have considered that emotional burden BEFORE they drove in such a way as to run down the motorcyclist?

        Why doesn’t this same argument apply to people who cause their cars to collide with other cars, bicycles, pedestrians, etc? We would do far more for highway safety by e.g. a serious crackdown on cell phone use and other forms of reckless driving than by insisting on helmets.

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  5. caleb b says:

    I’m all for people having the freedom to do as they like, an individualist if you will…but when something is so obviously bad, I think it’s the obligation of society to protect individuals from themselves. “NO NO!” you say, “each person MUST have the right to choose, government must stay out of it!”

    I just don’t think that holds water. We don’t allow people to people to go over the Niagara Falls in a barrel anymore because it’s just too dangerous (and pretty stupid). You’re not allowed to own a lion in your apartment.

    Helmet laws are no different that requiring people to wear seatbelts – which is a great law and has saved many, many, many lives.

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    • Mike B says:

      On the other hand motorcycles are so unsafe that helmet laws are like putting a bandaid on a gunshot wound. Unhelmeted riders, instead of being a burden on the medical system with years of physical reconstruction, are a positive, supplying valuable organs.

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    • Tim F says:

      There are externalities involved with seatbelts – driving with a seatbelt not only helps save the drivers life it also helps the driver maintain control of the vehicle when needing to do things such as break suddenly. Without this control the chances of the driver crashing into to others and causing damage increases.

      One could make the arguement that any one persons life is not really their own as friends and family would also be effected by any one persons death and thus externalities exist that justify governmental intervention, but that is a slippery slope to start going down.

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  6. Tim says:

    As a motorcycle dealer, this is of great personal concern to me; we literally take a portion of our market budget and devote it to safety awareness, because the tragedy of accidental death can affect us so personally. However, it’s hard to argue with the fact that, from a purely economic perspective, there is actually a POSITIVE externality here for society as a whole (increased organ availability), while it only negatively impacts the fools who choose not to wear helmets (and their poor families).

    This makes sense with ONE major caveat: states that repeal helmet laws should require riders to carry additional coverage for long-term or invalid care. The healthcare costs to treat traumatic head injuries are very high, and those costs should NOT be borne by society.

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    • Carolyn says:

      Tim’s point about requiring additional healthcare coverage is a great idea. I’m tired of paying for other people’s blatant poor judgment. Those who get hurt riding a motorcycle without a helmet should pay for their own care!

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      • James says:

        Sure. As long as we require the same sort of liability insurance for people who overeat and don’t exercise. As you say, I’m tired of paying for other people’s blatant poor judgment. Those who suffer heart attacks, diabetes, and other self-inflicted lifestyle diseases should pay for their own care!

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      • Mike B says:

        Those that get hurt without a helmet probably end up dying, which is a hell of a lot cheaper than years of physical therapy.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      And not just long-term care: their insurance should pay the full cost of the emergency response that made it possible for them to need long-term care rather than dying in the ditch. Just like every fire risks the lives of firefighters, every transport from a vehicle accident risks the lives of the paramedics and EMTs who have to get out of their relatively safe ambulances and walk down the road to pick you up.

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  7. tmeier says:

    Does this control for an increase in riders and miles ridden? I would think this question too obvious to ask but for some recent articles in which elementary controls were not applied e.g. the one about American and European divorce rates.

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  8. KJAWolf says:

    But how are we supposed to interpret the drop in donors in states that have not repealed their helmet laws in at the zero point of your chart? That seems equal in magnitude to the amount donations rise in repeal states – are they both artefacts of the same noise?

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