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Between 1994 and 2007, six states repealed laws that required all motorcyclists to wear helmets.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 Earlier this year, Michigan repealed its universal helmet law, while similar legislation has been introduced in five other states.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


did u control for texting while motorcycling?

RJ Roy

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.

Eric M. Jones

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....!!!

Mike B

Why is saving people from their own poor decisions considered "progress".


Read all of this if you like Ayn Rand. Ignore it and skip to the end if you recognize Objectivism as idiocy.

As a society which at least attempts to be civilized, we gradually developed the reliance on our fellow man. Naturally we built on lessons, from "If we three families put our huts next to each other we can warn each other about bears" to "If we two tribes join forces some can plant, and some can hunt, and some can craft" to the very idea of laws: society as a whole deciding that A Thing, while fun for Someone, is bad for Mostly Everyone, and we can probably do without It. The next step was the idea that we were so many, that we could have a few speak for the many; the few could then make decisions about the many. Sometimes some of the many don't like the decisions made. If a lot of the many don't like the decisions to a greater degree, they can pick a new few to make different decisions, either in an orderly fashion or forcefully if necessary.

Back with us? Basically I'm explaining why we have a society where laws can exist that benefit the whole at the expense of the few, even if the few don't like it very much sometimes; that's where this falls in my humble opinion.

I am totally cool with "saving people from their own poor decisions" because if your idea of a better society is "you do whatever, I don't care, I'll do whatever, you won't care" the natural evolution of that sounds great and full of "freedom" until you look around, realize that you're living in Somalia-virtually no organized government or laws other than force by greatest numbers and force by the wealthy enough to buy guns.



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 :-)


caleb b

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.


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.


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!


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!


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.


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?


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.)

Charlie Cheval

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?


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.


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


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.

L Lehmann

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.


thanks freakonomiocs