The Dismal Science Indeed

Coming home late last night from Newark Airport, I was passed by three ‘Ninja’ cyclists doing at least 90 mph, and couldn’t help but think of a paper I had read on the flight, “Donorcycles,” by Stacy Dickert-Conlin, Todd Elder and Brian Moore, which argues there is a link between higher organ-donation rates and the lack of a helmet law in certain states. Reading the last paragraph in particular somehow really just put me in mind of Thomas Carlyle’s famous dictum about economics being the “dismal science”:

Understanding the unintended consequences of helmet laws allows for more informed
policymaking by providing a more complete picture of the costs and benefits involved. Although our estimates point to a sizeable effect of helmet laws on motor vehicle accident-based organ donations, the repeal of all helmet laws as a measure to reduce the severe shortage of organs in the U.S. would be ineffective in isolation, primarily because over 80 percent of organ donors die due to circumstances unrelated to motor vehicle accidents. Our preferred estimates imply that nationwide elimination of helmet laws would increase annual organ donations by less than one percent.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 14th, 2009 at 5:48 am and is filed under Traffic safety. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

6 Responses to “The Dismal Science Indeed”

  1. Dale Says:

    At 90 plus I doubt a helmet would save anybody. They won’t protect someone from a broken neck.

  2. didrik Says:

    This is interesting since they are saying that states with no helmet laws have higher number of fatalities. I’ve also read an article lately that said some states that have repealed the motorcycle helmet laws have seen a sharp rise in fatalities. But, as I researched bicycle helmets, I accidentally ran into motorcycle helmet literature that said motorcycle helmet laws had the effect of increasing the rate of injury and fatality much the same way that bike helmet laws have. I know that rates and absolute numbers are not the same thing. I’d be interested in knowing if the rate of head injury/ fatality in the motorcycle population of states with repealed laws has increased or decreased since even if the rate remained the same you will see a rise in the absolute number because–at least according to the theory–once you remove the helmet law, the number of motorcycles on the road would go up. Hence, so would the absolute number of fatalities.

    I haven’t researched the motorcycle helmet much (I’m more interested in finding the truth about bike helmets), but it seems that at the speeds motorcycles go, there are a lot more injuries to die from than just head injuries.

    So were they really considering removing the helmet laws so that more people would die to give them organs?

  3. Botswana Meat Commission FC Says:


    Was the anti-motorcycle helmet literature you found arguing that helmets cause neck/spinal injuries? If so, this is an old, old canard from the “black t-shirt and chaps” Harley rider contingent. It’s been thoroughly refuted by science in the past 20 years.


  4. Frank Eggers Says:

    I ride a motorcycle, but I ALWAYS wear full protective gear, including a full-face helmet.

    Speed is only one factor that determines whether a motorcycle rider will be injured or killed if he is involved in an accident. If a rider doesn’t hit an object and is wearing full protective gear, he may suffer only minor injuries even in a high speed accident. On the other hand, if he is riding at only 20 mph and hits a heavy object with his head, probably he will be killed even if he is wearing a helmet. Thus, depending on circumstances, full protective gear, including a helmet, can considerably reduce the likelihood of injury or death at any speed.

    Obviously wearing full protective gear does not offer full protection and is no substitute for careful riding, but still it is helpful at ALL speeds!

    A helmet alone is not sufficient. A rider could slide on pavement for a considerable distance and lose considerable skin, flesh, and muscle without a proper jacket, gloves, pants, and boots.

  5. Phil M Says:

    The word “cyclist” typically describes people on bicycles. You probably meant “bikers” or “motorcyclists”.

  6. didrik Says:

    Sorry if I confused folks. I meant to say that in my researching of bicycle helmets I would sometimes stumble on motorcycle helmet discussions. The discussions stated that motorcycle helmet laws increased the fatality rate of motorcyclists in those states with the laws. This is a similar effect we see with bicycle helmet laws. So, it was interesting to read this post which seemed to indicate repealing the motorcycle helmet law would dramatically increase fatalities. The discussions around how our safety measures sometimes do more harm are fascinating to me.

    @Botswana… Yes, that’s what the article was saying: helmets reduced head injuries but the number of fatalities remained the same because neck injuries were replacing head injuries. I didn’t dive any deeper on it than that.

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