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Between 1994 and 2007, six states repealed laws that required all motorcyclists to wear helmets.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 Earlier this year, Michigan repealed its universal helmet law, while similar legislation has been introduced in five other states.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. 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    The states where helmet laws were repealed had higher donor rates even before the law change, so some of the difference is due to other effects.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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. helmets says:

    thanks freakonomiocs

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  8. 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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