Economists: Repealing Motorcycle Helmet Law Boosts Organ Harvest

But Does This Study Really Support Universal Helmet Laws?

Many Ohio motorcyclists have grown weary of the debate over helmet laws. The Buckeye State repealed its universal helmet law in 1978, but organizations and lobbyists pressure lawmakers to reinstate the law nearly every legislative session.

The debate had grown somewhat stale, but a study by Michigan State University economics professors recently provided new talking points.

The research found that the repeal of helmet laws creates a 10 percent surge in organ donors.

"We're never willing to weigh the tradeoff between people who die riding a motorcycle and people who need an organ transplant," said Stacy Dickert-Conlin, a lead author of the study. "But the reality is that people who may never ride a bike might benefit."

'Donorcycle' Debate Fueled By MSU Study

The pro-helmet population has long used various statistics to illustrate their point, ranging from preventable deaths to the societal cost of treating motorcyclist head injuries. Yet, few calculations reach the shock value of correlating helmet laws to organ harvesting.

Even before the study, many helmet law stakeholders referred to motorcycles as "donorcycles." Because approximately 90 percent of bikers are relatively young and healthy males, they represent ideal organ donors.

The motorcycle helmet study reads, in part:

The estimates imply that every death of a helmetless motorcyclist prevents or delays as many as .33 deaths among individuals on organ transplant waiting lists.

To be clear, the study's authors are not taking a stance on the helmet debate. As economists, they are interested in whether there is a correlation between helmet laws and organ donation. Still, their conclusions are frequently used by helmet law supporters.

Think The Debate Is A No-Brainer? Not So Fast ...

People who believe a motorcyclist should be free to choose whether he or she wears a helmet also have arguments that prove compelling.

The donor research shows that biker deaths, although tragic, are often not entirely in vain. A single motorcycle accident victim may provide as many as eight organs to patients on donor waiting lists. While the death of a helmetless rider is never a good thing, it may benefit some people who may otherwise die from their medical problems.

Other arguments made by the "right to choose" movement include:

  • Most studies, including the donor organ research, rely on government data. The government has long pushed for helmet use and its figures are a product of inherent bias in data collection and analysis, according to many lobbyists.
  • Motorcycle helmets reduce visibility and hearing, according to some veteran riders.
  • Helmet or no helmet, motorcyclists understand that they do not have the crash protection that other motorists enjoy. Each rider already decides that the pleasure and efficiency of motorcycling outweigh the drawbacks.

What Does The Future Hold?

Even if Ohio keeps its motorcycle helmet law unchanged, there will likely be significant changes in helmet use. Technology is transforming helmets from merely a source of head protection to devices that help riders in a variety of ways. Rearview cameras, GPS navigation and communication tools are all helmet features in development or already available.

Imagine enjoying your daylong ride when an automated in-helmet speaker warns you that you are traveling toward a severe thunderstorm. Perhaps an accident on your route has brought traffic to a standstill, but your helmet automatically suggests you take an alternative route. These features will become the norm in helmets of the future and will likely reduce motorcycle accidents.

The intrigue of a tech-heavy helmet among a growing population of millennial motorcyclists may boost helmet popularity and reduce legislative pressure to make helmet use mandatory.