Commentary: Repealed helmet laws have been good for organ recipients

The Miami HeraldJune 24, 2012 

Okay, okay. I was wrong about motorcycle helmets.

Back in 2000, when the Florida Legislature revoked its mandatory helmet law for motorcyclists, I ridiculed biker arguments that getting rid of protective headgear would save lives.

As it turned out, getting rid of helmets, indeed, has saved lives. Just not the lives of motorcycle riders.

Researchers from Michigan State University discovered an unexpected, life-saving benefit when Florida and five other states jettisoned their helmet laws. “Our central estimates show that organ donations due to motor vehicle accidents increase by 10 percent when states repeal helmet laws.”

Good news for folks in need of a heart or liver or kidney or other coveted organ. Bareheaded bikers have become so disproportionately generous with their innards that the medical community has dubbed their machines “donorcycles.”

Other news for bareheaded bikers has not been so rosy. The Centers for Disease Control reports that while motorcycles account for about 3 percent of the registered vehicles, they now account for 14 percent of the traffic fatalities. While overall traffic fatalities have fallen to the lowest rate since 1949, biker deaths are going the other direction (up four percent in Florida.)

Just last week, the CDC reported a correlation between the repeal of motorcycle helmet laws and fatalities among motorcycle riders without helmets. That particular subset of traffic fatalities showed up five times more frequently in states without mandatory helmet laws.

The CDC seemed to presume that everyone accepts the obvious — that it’s safer to ride with a helmet than without. But in 2000, Florida biker groups argued just the opposite — that helmets were actually hazardous, despite the actual evidence, not to mention common sense.

Back in 2000, bikers cited an obscure study claiming that helmets increased the risk of spinal injuries. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine beg to differ.

“We are debunking a popular myth that wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle can be detrimental during a motorcycle crash,” said Professor Adil H. Haider, who led the 2011 study that found helmeted riders were 22 percent less likely to suffer cervical spine injury. “Using this new evidence, legislators should revisit the need for mandatory helmet laws,” Haider said. “There is no doubt that helmets save lives and reduce head injury. And now we know they are also associated with a decreased risk of cervical spine injury.”

Apparently the notion of personal freedom trumps all that medical stuff. Unhappily, taxpayers also get the bill when brain-damaged bikers end up in public hospitals. One California study found the public paid 72 percent of the medical costs of biker smash-ups. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, figuring the medical costs, estimated that we could save $1.3 billion a year if bikers could only be persuaded to don protective head gear.

Perhaps, in the event of a crash, helmet-less riders could be persuaded to just expire, rather than take their personal freedom to hospital trauma wards. Even more organ donors could benefit from their all-important insistence on feeling the wind blow across their less than brilliant, helmet-less heads.

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