Friday, July 20, 2012


Donorcycles: Motorcycle Helmet Laws and the Supply of Organ Donors

Stacy Dickert-Conlin, Todd Elder & Brian Moore
Journal of Law and Economics, November 2011, Pages 907-935

Abstract:  Traffic safety mandates are typically designed to reduce the harmful externalities of risky behaviors. We consider whether motorcycle helmet laws also reduce a beneficial externality by decreasing the supply of viable organ donors. Our central estimates show that organ donations resulting from fatal motor vehicle accidents increase by 10 percent when states repeal helmet laws. Two features of this association suggest that it is causal: first, nearly all of it is concentrated among men, who account for over 90 percent of all motorcyclist deaths, and second, helmet laws are unrelated to the supply of donors who die in circumstances other than motor vehicle accidents. The estimates imply that every death of a helmetless motorcyclist prevents or delays as many as .33 death among individuals on organ transplant waiting lists.

I would expect deaths to go up, and total accidents to go down slightly, after a helmet law is repealed.  People would be slightly less willing to take risks, but if there is an accident it is more likely to result in death.

Here's my question:  Wearing a helmet does not protect your neck.  So motorcycle helmet laws seem likely to save lives by allowing accident victims to survive as paraplegics.  Consequently, the big effects of motorcycle helmet laws are three:

1.  Reduced deaths from motorcycle accidents, but increased total accidents
2.  Sharply increased negative externality, as increased number of paraplegics are paid for by public expense through taxes and increased insurance
3.  Reduced organ donation.

Not clear we want motorcycle helmet laws, then.


JMS said...

At first glance, study looks flawed. They did not stick to organ donors who died while riding motorcycles, but mixed in all motor vehicle fatalities. Also, the only graph (FIG. 2) that shows death rates before/after law change is not very convincing.

Mike said...

I don't wear a helmet while riding my motorcycle because I have the exact same reasoning as you.

Keith Ng said...

1) "Reduced deaths from motorcycle accidents, but increased total accidents"
Do you have any evidence for this? Or are you just extrapolating from bicycle data?

2) "So motorcycle helmet laws seem likely to save lives by allowing accident victims to survive as paraplegics."
That's a ridiculous and baseless assertion. From

"Those who were wearing a helmet had fewer and less severe head and facial injuries, required fewer days on a ventilator, and sustained no serious neck injuries; fewer patients who wore helmets were discharged with disability, and hospital charges were lower. These data support the need for both increased public education regarding helmet use and mandatory helmet use legislation."


You seem to have this idea that helmeted survivals from motorcycle accidents are messy, expensive and rarely result in full recovery, whereas unhelmeted deaths are quick, uncomplicated and cheap. Traumatic brain injuries are not always immediately lethal; treatment can be extremely expensive - not to mention the long-term cost for rehabilitation and care for serious brain injury.

If you want to be against motorcycle laws because you're ideologically committed to your right to risk your own neck, sure, go nuts, but your "public good" argument is baseless and ignorant.

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