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Between 1994 and 2007, six states repealed laws that required all motorcyclists to wear helmets.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


Well, at least he died doing what he loved. Having his head smashed against the pavement.


Wow let's slow down here. Let's see what we are talking about here:

Helmets increases driver/rider safety therefore we should make it legally mandatory.

SO, according to that line of reasoning, this should also be true:

Wearing a tailored suit to a job interview increases the chances of getting a job therefore we should make tailored suits to job interviews legally mandatory.
If that sounds absurd, then you should back off from the fallacious line of reasoning.

Gov't should only intervene when your actions are proven to harm OTHERS, Not yourself! Helmets(even seat belts) harm only the rider and no one else. For all the idiots who dont wear helmets....let natural selection take its course. I rest my case.


Because people who do without seatbelts and helmets have no family or friends and make no contribution to society? Nearly every death harms others in some way. And somehow, people manage to be good and useful despite their flaws. Not to mention the extra costs involved in dealing with the extra deaths and injuries caused by neglecting preventative safety measures.

Daniel Dickison

Is there a reason that plot is drawn as a stacked area plot as opposed to a line plot with two overlaid lines? Or is it actually the latter but drawn with the area under the lines shaded?


Mandatory and primary offense seat belt laws never resulted in lower insurance costs though that industry pushed and benefited the most from that law.

Same reduction of premium costs ~~~did not~~~ happen when states enacted mandatory helmet laws even though the industry crowed about how much money irresponsible helmetless motorcyclists cost "society".

The insurance industry would like to get rid of motorcycles/scooters entirely anyhow and limit your vehicle choice to a 4 cylinder 4 door appliance lined with airbags.


I would also argue that horse riding, which per mile / hour ridden is far more dangerous than motorcycle riding (think Chris Reeves), should require a full face helmet and body armor jacket/pants...


"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 strong argument against such a law?"

Maybe that *not* wearing a helmet reduces medical costs. Is there any evidence that helmets reduce medical costs? It seems to me that dying suddenly and instantly would have the lowest medical costs. Maybe that would be a great freakonomics investigation.


How about you get to ride without a helmet only if you have an insurance rider to cover your long-term vegetative state and/or other emergency medical care? That's the free-market solution. You want to do it? You pay for your own costs.

Randall Hoven

It's interesting how so many people know what is "too risky" and what is "acceptable risk", without having a clue about any actual numbers. So an unhelmeted motorcyclist got killed. Did that ever happen to a skydiver, scuba diver, helmeted motorcyclist, non-helmeted pedestrian, non-helmeted car occupant, swimmer w/o a life vest, etc.? If so, why was it stupid for the unhelmeted motorcyclist, but perfectly reasonable for all the others? Do you have the relative risks, or do you use "common sense"?


It's simple. Your country believes in individual freedom above all else, and should not have mandatory helmet laws (or mandatory seatbelt laws, for that matter).

My country, with our state-sponsored medical system, leans the opposite way and we have mandatory helmet laws (and should probably have a method of encouraging people to wear proper clothing, too - a helmet doesn't help you in a crash if you're wearing a tank top and flip-flops).

For what it's worth, all of the arguments I've seen for repealing helmet laws seem to be based on questionable statistics and research - some mumbo-jumbo about helmets causing injuries, coupled with statistics that try to show that only dumb riders have accidents. In Ontario we've recently lost several riders to unavoidable accidents caused by cars, so I don't by the second argument at all...


There's a serious fallacy in most of the reporting on this story. I kind of expected not to see it in an economics-driven setting, but here it is...

For one thing, the tone of the coverage suggests that this incident proved the man wrong somehow. I can't see how that would be. Unless he was a complete idiot, I'm sure that he realized that riding without a helmet is more dangerous than riding with one. Just like I'm sure he realized that riding a motorcycle is riskier than driving a car. All he was advocating is the ability to make that choice, to weigh the pros and cons, and make a decision like a rational consumer.

That also points to the flaw in the support for mandatory helmet laws - the lack of a quantifiable basis for them. "It's more dangerous to do activity A than not do it" is not a valid basis for banning activity A. You can incentivize participants to account for the shared added societal costs of activity A (e.g. an additional endorsement to ride w/o a helmet, with a fee attached - I have a feeling that this fee would need to be miniscule to account for all those emergency costs). Using that argument you could ban all kinds of activities, from motorcycling altogether, to hiking outdoors, basically to leaving the house!

To answer the question in the story "what is the strongest argument against such a law?": Unfortunately, the enjoyment of riding goes up by a large factor without a helmet. As a rider, I can attest to that. It seems that we experience speed, which is one of the most enjoyable parts of riding, much more when the wind hits our face directly. It may also be that the extra risk adds to the experience, though I don't think that's the main factor. You also feel much more connected to the outside world with only glasses or goggles covering your eyes, which is one feeling people crave when they exchange a car for a bike. So, the strongest argument against such a law? It takes away a powerful, even if risky, source of happiness for people. Which is the thing that economics aims to maximize.


Owen C. Jones

In many cases, a motorcyclist who is involved in a serious accident but is saved by a helmet will cost just as much in terms of medical costs as one who doesn't.

Take, for example these two cases:

Case one - Guy thrown from his bike after stopping abruptly when cut up by a car, hits the ground to broken legs, no helmet, sustains serious head injuries.

Case two - Same guy, same accident, but with a helmet.

In both cases, unless dead on scene, an ambulance would be called, with police backup to manage the traffic = Cost one. The guy would be transported to hospital = Cost two. At hospital, he would be subjected to a CT (or CAT for Americans) scan at hospital = Cost three and would have his broken bones and minor injuries treated accordingly = Cost four.

The cases could go one of two ways. The guy with head injuries and no helmet could cost the system a bit more because he needs neurological re-hab, or the guy with the helmet and no head injuries could cost more because he doesn't die on scene or soon after, like the head injuries guy might well.

Overall, this is more of an argument against motorcycles, than an argument in favour of helmet law lax-ness.


Ben Stamp

Interesting but not that much impact. A net increase of half a death per million over 4 years isn't that much.


As a hardcore libertarian, I'm more concerned with freedom than with the danger or costs involved.

But the example cited doesn't even make a claim to being more costly to society. No large medical costs were involved. But there may have been had he been wearing a helmet!

Ian Churchlow

The strongest argument against the helmet law is 'freedom of choice'. If you don't want to wear a helmet you shouldn't have to - the rider decides! If we fail to accept the right to choose, where does it end? Would all dangerous sports be banned simply because we all share the medical costs of injury. No! If we want a society that grants an individual the right to to decide the level of risk they are prepared to accept then this is the price we pay.

I suspect our scribe is simply trying to be provocative and is more liberal than he purports to be!