Economist studies link between helmet-free bikers, organ donors

Maybe you know some of the bad things that happen when states roll back their laws mandating safety helmets for all motorcycle riders:

Fewer riders wear helmets.

More riders suffer serious brain injuries in crashes, running up six- and seven-figure medical bills for families and taxpayers.

More riders die.

There’s a good thing that happens, too: With fewer lifesaving, brain-protecting helmets, we get more organ donors.

Maybe you’ve heard this morbid factoid as a bit of sardonic cocktail-party wisdom. But it was no joke to Stacy Dickert-Conlin, an economics professor at Michigan State University. She wanted to find out whether it was really true.

Dickert-Conlin likes to study unintended consequences. How does Social Security policy shape personal decisions about divorce and remarriage? Why do deer hunting regulations reduce shooting accidents and save human lives?

“I’ve always been interested in the markets for things you can’t buy and sell,” Dickert-Conlin told the Road Worrier.

Things like human organs. So in a 29-page study published in 2011, she and two colleagues measured the “donorcycles” effect.

They calculated a 10 percent increase in organ donations resulting from motor vehicle accidents in states that have repealed their helmet laws.

A better supply of organs means shorter waits for transplant recipients. So for every three deaths involving motorcyclists riding without helmets, the economists figure that death is delayed or prevented for one person on an organ waiting list.

Before we dig into the delicate numbers, let’s get something straight: Dickert-Conlin is not calling for repeal of the helmet laws. She notes the grim ratio of 3 riders dead for 1 organ recipient saved. As she and her co-authors dryly observe, “helmetless riding is clearly an inefficient means of preserving life.”

The Road Worrier brings this up as the state Senate is considering a bill – passed by the House last year – that would have North Carolina conduct its own helmet law study. The idea is to predict what might happen if we join the 31 states that have decided to make helmets optional for adult bikers, or all bikers.

The bill is a compromise pushed by free-spirited bikers who have been unable to win enough votes for what they really want to do: require helmets only for teen motorcyclists and reduce penalties for violators.

If they’re looking for a chance to accentuate the positive aspects of rolling back a lifesaving law, maybe they should talk up the prospect of a transplant organ bonanza.

Dickert-Conlin traces several steps between a relaxed helmet law and an increased flow of organ donations. It’s not just that helmetless bikers are more likely to die. Biker crash victims also happen to be better-than-average organ donors.

Except in cases where a living donor gives up a kidney or part of a liver, nearly all transplant organs come from donors who are brain-dead. Respirators and other medical equipment keep their hearts beating and their organs viable for transplant.

And brain death is much more often a factor in motorcycle crashes than in automobile crashes. Especially when they are not protected by helmets, the economists write, motorcyclists “can be killed in low-speed, relatively minor collisions which cause brain death but leave the rest of the body in pristine condition.”

Studies show helmets work

The House study bill promotes the idea of better motorcycle safety instruction, which sounds good. But researchers say that doesn’t do much in the way of saving lives.

When a helmet requirement is repealed, studies show that helmet use falls from nearly 100 percent to about 55 percent.

And that’s too bad because, as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has reported, helmets cut the risk of death in a crash by 37 percent and the risk of head injury by 69 percent. Nothing else comes close to preventing so many motorcycle deaths and injuries.

It turns out that more than 12 percent of motorcycle crash victims end up as organ donors, Dickert-Conlin says – compared with less than 4 percent of car crash victims. Transplant surgeons make use of two or three organs from the average donor.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculated in 2012 that the helmet requirement for all motorcyclists saves the lives of 80 motorcyclists in North Carolina every year – more than in any other state. On the other hand, if all states repealed their helmet laws, Dickert-Conklin figures an additional 677 motorcyclists would die every year (on top of the current national toll of about 5,000).

One journal editor was dismissive when she circulated her “donorcycles” study a few years ago. Everybody knows that bareheaded bikers make good organ donors, he told her.

But no one had ever studied the connection. Rolling back helmet laws really does increase organ donation – not a huge impact, “but it’s nontrivial,” she said.

“We would never promote this as a policy,” Dickert-Conlin said. “But it is certainly the case that people who will benefit from the removal of helmet laws are people on organ waiting lists.”