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Between 1994 and 2007, six states repealed laws that required all motorcyclists to wear helmets.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 Earlier this year, Michigan repealed its universal helmet law, while similar legislation has been introduced in five other states.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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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