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Between 1994 and 2007, six states repealed laws that required all motorcyclists to wear helmets.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 Earlier this year, Michigan repealed its universal helmet law, while similar legislation has been introduced in five other states.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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  9. MW says:

    That plot is not presenting the data in a neutral way.

    The y axis does not start at zero. The top curve at +4 years looks like it is 4 times higher than the bottom, in reality it is only about 30% higher.

    The cyclist on the bottom curve is on a downward section, whereas the one on the top is made to look like they’re jumping off a ramp.

    The states where helmet laws were repealed had higher donor rates even before the law change, so some of the difference is due to other effects.

    How does the bottom line even get calculated? How can you date things relative to year of repeal in the states which didn’t repeal? (I can think of a few sensible things to do, but they’re not simple.)

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  10. Charlie Cheval says:

    The graph that leads this article is unclear. What does year “zero” represent for states that didn’t repeal their helmet law? Looks to me like states that repealed had one year in which donations were higher than Year “-1.” Statistical significance? And states that did not repeal had a significant drop without doing anything. What the heck is going on here?

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  11. Phil says:

    Donors per million “WHAT”? Million miles ridden? Million people? Million accidents?

    Could there be an effect of repealing helmet laws that increases the use of motorcycles? Just maybe?

    Could there be a situation where motorcyclists head on vacation for states where there is no helmet law?

    I’m in favor of helmet laws and always wear mine, but this is just poor science. Motorcyclists crash predominantly because people in cars don’t see them and violate their space. They die more often when not wearing helmets. All of this is relative to the number of miles ridden by motorcyclists. This data needs to account for that.

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  12. joelupchurch says:

    I did my own calculations on motorcycle fatalities over 20 years ago. Riding a motorcycle was about 20 times as dangerous as driving a car on a passenger mile basis and the ratio keeps increasing, since driving a car keeps getting safer. The point is that riding without a helmet is just the cherry on top of a huge bad choice. Either outlaw motorcycles or leave them along

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  13. Deniece says:

    I honestly don’t know if it would have any impact on this study or not, but MI has been pushing and campaigning for people to add themselves to the organ donor list, so perhaps there are just plain more people who are donors and therefore more organs available from crashes?
    Additionally, I’d be interested to know if the number of people riding motorcycles is also increasing.

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  14. L Lehmann says:

    As an emergency physician I have always urged motorcycle-riding patients who refuse to wear a helmet to at least check the organ donation box on their driver’s license.

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  15. helmets says:

    thanks freakonomiocs

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  16. griff says:

    The UK has had a mandatory helmet law – and mandatory seatbelt law – for many years.

    I never hear anyone complain about this – it is almost universally observed and regarded as simple common sense, not someone interferring with your freedom…

    Should we repeal our laws – what would we get from that?

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    • tmeier says:

      It’s part of a package, you also have health care paid for by taxes. The problem is laws tend to follow rational lines and one of the strongest rational ties is between accountability and control. If you are accountable for something it is only right you should have power over it to the degree of your liability. If the people, as represented by the state are paying your health care bills they should have power over everything which impacts those bills, which is just about everything.

      In practice the people generally don’t want such power, but there is almost always someone in government who does. It’s the road to serfdom. You can comfort yourself with the idea that it’s ridiculous to think the state will ever take such powers but if you’d asked someone a hundred years ago about the many powers the state has taken on itself since then he’d have scoffed at the idea people would allow such intrusion, so I am not comforted. Liberties are like the old joke about the police coming for the one group after another without protest until finally they come for you and there’s no one left to protest. Liberty and security are not compatible.

      The question really comes down to why we live. Many if not most nowadays seem to think life is about maximizing pleasure, if one agrees with this selling liberties which don’t bring much pleasure for benefits which do makes sense but the logical conclusion of the pleasure principle is a lotus-eater. Perhaps one day we’ll all sit in pods with drugs and dreams pumped into our brains for 300 years and call it the ideal life.

      If that’s the choice I’ll take liberty with all it’s dangers.

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  17. Eric M. Jones. says:

    I would like to propose that people not wearing helmets is at least partly an industrial design problem.

    Helmets are (usually) big, bulky, restrictive and lack neck support. Furthermore unfastening the strap requires removing the gloves. The safety requirements really suppress innovation.

    Really safe helmets that riders WON’T wear are much less effective than pretty good helmets that most riders WILL wear.

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  18. OldRider says:

    As a motorcycle rider who has been in an accident (not serious, thankfully), anyone who willingly rides without a helmet is an idiot, plain and simple. Although cleansing the gene pool might be a good thing for our society.

    What I want to know is if they can repeal the helmet law, can we stop wearing seat belts? If it’s a ‘restriction on my free will’ to ride without a helmet, isn’t it fair for drivers to enjoy the same freedoms?

    As a safety-conscious person I will always wear a helmet and a seat belt, because I don’t want to endanger myself more than necessary for my and my family’s future.

    But really.. No helmets is ok, but they have ‘Safety Belt Enforcement Zones’ and can pull you over and ticket you for no seat belt?

    Another testament to our backwards ‘Freedom’ filled society that selectively chooses what’s best for us, even when it has no idea what it’s doing..

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    • James says:

      As a rider who’s been in a couple of accidents, I disagree. Realistically, there’s a chance of getting hurt or killed doing most any enjoyable physical activity. Still, I think the data shows that the surest way to send your risk of premature death or disability (and associated health care costs) through the roof is to spend your life sitting on your butt and overeating. (See the new post on health effects of commuting.)

      Now if helmets and helmet laws are such a good thing for safety, why not require them for riding in cars, too? Why stop there? Surely there are a number of people who trip & fall while walking, riding escalators, or even leaning back in their office chairs, exposing themselves to the risk of head injury. Shouldn’t all these people be wearing helmets? Shouldn’t office chairs have seat belts?

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      • tmeier says:

        Reminds me of the ‘Bobs’ song ‘I’ve got my Helmet on’.

        Accidents in the home are a leading cause of injury shouldn’t we all be wearing protective clothing at all times? Swimming pools kill more young people than guns and they aren’t Constitutionally protected, shouldn’t they be outlawed? Surely skiing is the most dangerous mode of travel per mile, why isn’t it more highly regulated? Do they even wear helmets? Horseback riding would have to be second, do cowboys have to wear helmets?

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      • tmeier says:

        Wait, isn’t walking the most dangerous ordinary mode of transportation per mile? I thought there was a blog article about it. Since motorcycles are also mostly involved in accidents which are the result of a car driver’s fault surely the two are directly comparable.

        There is only one logical conclusion, make pedestrians wear helmets!

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      • caleb b says:


        This is self-justification of the highest order. To paraphrase you: ‘Well, I could get killed doing a lot of things, so why should I take precaution while riding a motorcycle?’ Smokers use this as well. You are inventing a reality in which all risks to death are equal. I assure you, they are not.

        “..if helmets and helmet laws are such a good thing for safety, why not require them for riding in cars…”
        Because the marginal safety benefit of wearing a helmet in a car is almost zero, but much greater than zero for motorcycles.

        Since we’re okay with just using blanket statements and arm-chair logic, I’ll offer some to you: I propose that helmets dramatically reduce healthcare costs. I propose that many accidents in which riders are wearing helmets result in no hospital stay (low cost), while riders without tend to stay in the ICU before they die or get better (high cost). My reasoning? If I hit your arm with a hammer, it will hurt and might break your arm, but you’re not going to stay in the ICU. If I hit you in the head? Well, you get the idea. Common sense here James…it’s your friend.

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      • tmeier says:

        “I’ll offer some to you: I propose that helmets dramatically reduce healthcare costs.”

        Oh man, trust me, you don’t want to go there. You can’t take the attitude that the most important consideration in any law of this type is to control cost, to maximize overall economic benefit, otherwise, for example, there is no reason to treat the elderly at all , that’s just wasting money. Continue down that logical path and you end up with labor camps.

        This is the problem with collectivizing moral decisions; with considering the rightness of a law as it’s overall impact on society rather than it’s relation to individuals, it gives you a justification for just about any horror you can imagine.

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      • James says:

        “This is self-justification of the highest order.”

        Caleb: Turn your “common sense” argument around. Everything has its risks. So to avoid those risks, I should do only the bare minimum necessary for survival, and when doing that should so pad myself with protective gear that it takes all the fun out of it?

        The point here is that riding motorcycles (or bicycles, horses, etc) is fun. Having to wear a helmet while doing it reduces the fun considerably. It’s a simple matter of risk versus reward.

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  19. GLK says:

    People get self-righteous over the cost to society when motorcyclists don’t want to wear helmets, or over motorcycle riding in general, yet they ignore the fact that as “costs to society go” this one is minuscule when weighed against what you and I shell out every day for for entitlement fraud and credit/identity theft, to name but two. And those I’ve cited are criminal activities, motorcycle riding is not. I just wish people would get on their high horse over the difficult issues that actually matter instead of targeting the easy puny stuff.

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    • tmeier says:

      Yes, the priorities are all screwed up from a logical perspective. Most likely the strong feeling are because people see motorcyclists every day and have a visceral reaction to them. Just as people have a sympathetic response when they see someone trying to balance a heavy load, people who don’t ride see a motorcyclist and they are frightened by the danger they feel for him. A helmet would reassure them somewhat.

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  20. Johann says:

    This is similar to babies born out of wedlock – the unintended consequence benefits US society by reducing immigration. I guess we can just go with the flow at this point.

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    • JohnS says:

      Sorry, could you clarify this? What’s the decision, what’s the unintended consequence, and what is the benefit?

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  21. David says:

    I wonder if anyone’s considering possible reductions in visibility and hearing and hence awareness from wearing a helmet. I’ve never wore a motorcycle helmet, but it looks kinda like a football helmet which really cuts into your peripheral vision, directional hearing, and ability to move your neck freely, all important things when driving.

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    • tmeier says:

      Depends on the type, the CHIP kind that sit on top of your head like a bicyclist helmet doesn’t restrict vision or hearing, it also provides a lot less protection. The full face kind certainly diminishes hearing, but you can’t hear well going more than about 30mph anyway because of the air moving past your ears. The peripheral vision isn’t so much restricted as I find a helmet makes you less inclined to turn your head as movement is more awkward. I’d say the safety is probably on the side of a CHIP helmet at low speeds, less than 35 mph and on the side of full face helmet at 35 mph+.

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  22. Tom West says:

    I don’t understand the chart… many states never had helmet laws, so what does “year 0 relative to repeal” mean for them???

    Also, this chart is misleading by not starting the vertical axis at zero.

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  23. Johann says:

    There are known safety plateaus and it seems that motorcycles conform to that, same as passenger vehicles. The approach generally taken is to talk to the State Medical Examiner and ask for a report with recommendations regarding motorcycle injuries. The legislature must then decide whether to repeal or enhance applicable legislation, or other social compact type measures.

    One such measure will consider the effect on donor statistics with applicable recommendations. Individuals such as motorcycle riders stil have the right to refuse organ donations as a form of protest against organ donations or helmet de/enforcement.

    So what is the problem?

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  24. Jay S. says:

    This reminds me of the seat belt safety chapter in SuperFreakanomics and how a simple lifesaving measure like seat belts meets so much resistance to adoption. It’s so easy to put on a helmet and costs relatively little, but so many people assume they’ve got crash survival super powers.

    The thing I’m wondering is if helmets for automobile drivers would increase survival rates automobile accidents (think about head trauma rates). It fits the mold of a good solution in that it is cheap (especially compared to air bags) and simple (takes about as long as a seat belt to put on and intuitively does the intended job). It also would meet the same resistance seat belt adoption did in that you would get made fun of for putting that dorky helmet on.

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  25. AJC says:

    Whelp, the fact that states are repealing the helmet law is just dumb. If motorcyclists don’t have protection from injury, then they are obviously going to suffer greater injuries when **** happens. If we want to change the injury numbers, we either have to re-implement the helmet laws, along with further motorcycle safety laws, or ban motorcycles.

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  26. GIVCO says:

    You shouldn’t focus on helmet laws to the exclusion of other factors, such as lane-splitting. Lane-splitting has been steadily wiped out by states through legislation or by directing police to ticket for “unsafe lane changes”, etc. Only California remains friendly to lane-splitters (and Europe and Asia). Lo, California’s fatality rates for motorcycle-car collisions is far, far lower than comparable states and the nation as a whole according to analysis done by Steve Guderian.

    Motorcyclists have sued and won the right to use HOV lanes in every state over the past 10 years (because it’s tied to Federal transportation funds). ABS brakes are also far more common, traction control is emerging (motorcycle technology is always 10-15 years behind cars), and training courses and track-days are more popular.

    The gross number of motorcycle deaths in 2010 (4,376) has returned to 2005 levels (4,576) after breaking 5,000 for a couple of years. This despite an increase in motorcyclists.

    BTW, are we ready to start requiring automobile drivers to wear helmets? If it’s safe for NASCAR, it’s safe for the population at large.

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  27. Gabe says:

    Frankly, this is a pointless waste of bandwidth. The overall numbers are here, but not broken down in a useful fashion. What are the deaths per 100,000 riders? Per miles riden? It’s very possible that there are more people riding more miles now that in the previous 5-10 years due to increasing gas prices. *If* there are more riders riding more miles–and more inexperienced riders riding more miles–and the overall death rate remains the same, that’s a VERY different outcome than what is implied here.

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  28. chuck moon says:

    the more motorcycles on the road the mor the deaths will occur. we require safety belts in a common vehicle but we allow the most dangerous vvehicle to be on the road. lost brother to motorcycle accident 4-4-09 chuck m

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