Helmetless Motorcyclist Killed While Riding to Overturn Helmet Law

From the (Syracuse) Post-Standard:

A Parish man who was participating in a motorcycle helmet protest ride was killed this afternoon when he went over the handlebars of his motorcycle and injured his head on the pavement, state police said.

Philip A. Contos, 55, of 45 East St., Parish, was not wearing a helmet while driving a 1983 Harley Davidson motorcycle south on Route 11 in Onondaga with a large group of other motorcyclists, troopers said. …

Evidence at the scene and information from the attending physician indicate Contos would have survived if he had been wearing a Department of Transportation approved helmet, troopers said.

When foreign friends visit the States and are puzzled by some of the quirks of our Government, I often point to helmet laws — which differ state by state — as an example of how things work, or fail to work, depending on your point of view.

If the strongest argument in favor of a universal helmet law is that we all share medical and emergency costs to some degree and should therefore minimize them, what is the strongest argument against such a law?

One bizarre unintended consequence of the rollback in helmet laws: more human organs available for transplantation. From SuperFreakonomics Illustrated:

Between 1994 and 2007, six states repealed laws that required all motorcyclists to wear helmets.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.*

*See Stacy Dickert-Conlin, Todd Elder, and Brian Moore, “Donorcycles: Motorcycle Helmet Laws and the Supply of Organ Donors.”

Clifton Griffin

Interesting chart as always.

I think there is serious danger in letting legal questions be examined solely on the basis of the collective costs that society shares. This suggests that if an individual action is potentially costly for everyone else, it should always be stopped. This exalts the right of the community over the right of the individual.

And is there anything that doesn't fall under that umbrella?

It isn't much of a stretch to ban fast food by that criterion.

I will take an uncomfortable amount of liberty for my fellow citizens, if I am afforded the same.

Randall Hoven

In the last year I checked, there were more pedestrian deaths than motorcycle deaths. If motorcyclists are required to wear helmets, then why not pedestrians? Also, why not people in cars. The argument that "if you have an accident you are more likely to survive.." applies to pedestrians and vehicle passengers just as much as motorcyclists.

On the other hand, if motorcycles are inherently less safe than cars, why not outlaw them entirely, rather than mandate helmets? How can you mandate seat-belt use, but also allow motorcycles?

If there is some consistently-applied rule or principle in helmet laws, I can't find it. Minimize deaths? Minimize death rates? What? Because if applied consistently, helmets would be required of everyone, or motorcycles would be outlawed outright. (Unless you have numbers to show that mandating helmet use brings down motorcycle death rates to just exactly that considered tolerable for car occupants, pedestrians, etc.)



So those who insist on riding without helmet die and contribute to the donor pool. I wonder what Darwin would say about that.

Eric M. Jones

To Clifton Griffin:

The public roads are the public's. There are a whole list of things you must and mustn't do.

I am for all the freedom one can reasonably have that does not impinge too much on the freedom of others.

Hey, thanks for the organ donation!

Clifton Griffin

I concede that this is one of the more powerful arguments.

However, this does not give the public carte blanche power over the individual. As Randall aptly illustrates, there is almost no end of requirements one can imagine by this line of reasoning.

The public may own the road, but this has little if anything to do with a person's decisions about their own safety. A man flying through the air on a public road is as big an inconvenience to the public with his helmet as without.

Laws should focus on protecting the individual's rights from being infringed by other individuals, not on what serves the greater good. By this justification, laws against speeding make ense. Laws requiring seat belts and helmets do not.

For the record: I do not own a bike, and if I did, I would wear a helmet by my own choosing. I have no death wish. I just believe strongly in personal liberty, even when it's messy.


Joshua Northey

I would rather live at US per capita income with US level liberty infringements, then at Africa level per capita income with no liberty infringements. I am not saying those are the only options but your statement "Laws should focus on protecting the individual’s rights from being infringed by other individuals, not on what serves the greater good. " seems to me incredibly ignorant about people's actual preferences.

Behaviorally, people vastly prefer some "greater good (in the form of increased material wealth) to greater liberty (at the levels of liberty we are dealing with in the western world).

You are assuming the consequent. We know you prefer liberty to "the greater good" but what about your fellow citizens. You make the law together.

Clifton Griffin

My litmus test is not my preference. It's the constitution.

Most of American history has had both high personal liberty and high per capita income (vs the world). There is nothing that pits one against the other. Africa is not poor because they have no rules. America is not rich because we do. It's a false dilemma.

It is a modern notion that the government (state or federal) has jurisdiction over personal safety.

Robert Stasinski

Love that line of reasoning, the dilemma is just freaky, from a philosophical standpoint.


I'm all for personal freedom, but if I am required to wear my seatbelt; they should be required to wear a helmet. (Even if it isn't "cool".) Now armed with this new knowledge I say repeal the helmet laws with one stipulation; All who don't wear a helmet MUST sign up as organ donors, if caught not wearing a helmet and not an organ donor results in permenant revocation of a motorcycle license/enodorsement and a hefty fine. As well if the persecutor is involved in an accident, lack of a helmet automatically permits organ harvesting without legal persecution from the surviving family (even in case of religous violation, since they felt violation the law was acceptable)


Maybe I don't read enough stories with graphs here, but is this supposed to be an example of how you can make a graph show anything you want. Because that looks like one seriously biased chart.

That Y axis is only in the very narrow range of 3.0 to 4.6, to make any change look huge. With any data you can always cook up a graph to make small changes look huge.

What we are talking about is approximate increase of ONE donor/million riders.

This is like arguing that buying one more lotto ticket will vastly increase your chances of hitting the jackpot. Yes you may of doubled your odds, but the odds are still infinitesimal.

I am not a motorcyclist, but I am a bicyclist and the same games of exaggerated charts/graphs go on there.


That increase of one per million is an increase from three donors to four - increasing the number of organs by a third.


I like how you made the Y axis on the chart start at 3 and go to 4.6 so it looks like a big increase. Did you account for increased motorcycle riders in those states? Maybe more people wanted to ride motorcycles or rode more because they did not need a helmet?

Ian M

Reading these posts makes me want to not sign my organ doner card for spite. Some of you are very cold.

I DO wear my motorcycle helmet and I would if I didn't have to by law.

One reason is that I could not give my daughters a reasonable answer whan they asked why I don't wear a helmet (this is one reason I also wear a bicycle helmet which is not mandatory here in Ontario, Canada).

Note: I scolded tham for not wanting to wear their bicycle helmets because it messed up their hair.


It's not cold to criticize and ostracize people for engaging in incredibly risky behavior by choice. Riding a motorcycle without a helmet is idiocy, plain and simple.

Good for you for being smarter than that.


Interesting chart. I wonder how the figures stack up when you compare states with helmet laws against ALL of those that do not have such laws, whether as a result of a repeal between 1994 and 2007, a repeal at some other time, or never having passed one in the first place. Right now it seems like cherry picking because it appears to be a very limited comparison.

Clifton Griffin

I think focusing on repeal states is sensible. Gives them a baseline for comparison.

Enter your name

If memory serves, Iowa repealed its helmet law a long time ago -- sort of. I believe that you had to get a slightly more expensive license if you wanted to ride without a helmet. The idea was that the extra fee (partially?) offset the extra costs that helmetless riders imposed on the government.

For myself, I would not mind helmetless riders, so long as they have full insurance for any resulting problems. If you choose to skip the brain bucket, then -- in the unlikely chance that you smear your worthless brains on the road -- I and other members of society shouldn't have to pay one thin dime for the resulting emergency services, hospital care, rehab, home health, disability, sick leave, or anything else. It ought to be a relatively simple matter to set up an insurance policy that covers this. We could do the same thing for helmetless skateboarders and bicyclists, and even for seatbeltless vehicle riders.

If YOU choose to ride without a helmet, then YOU must pay for the consequences. YOU do not get to choose how I spend MY money.


Steve S.

Back to the core topic of the article: What if we allowed people to not wear a helmet while driving a motorcycle, provided that they agree to become an organ donor? Seems like it would leave everyone happy?


My sister works as a nurse. Their name for riders without helmets: Organ donors. I don't ride so it's actually to my "benefit" as a potential consumer of donated organs to discourage riding with a helmet. I actually don't support riding with helmet laws any more than I support seatbelt laws but not for the reason given above: We just don't need to nanny people. And if my cousin can get the liver she needs from it, all the better.