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Motorbike Helmet Laws, Human Behaviour & The Organ Donor Effect

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Motorbike Helmet Laws, Human Behaviour & The Organ Donor Effect

Should motorcycle riders have the right to choose to wear or not to wear a motorbike helmet? It is a fiercely debated topic among bikers, politicians and recently the people of Missouri.

It’s a ‘freedom of choice’ debate for many, questioning why the legislators feel they know what individuals need better than themselves. It is also a scale issue, how extensive should laws be to protect life and where should the line be drawn? Laws state that an individual is not allowed to intentionally end their own life, helmet laws attempt to reduce the risk of death, how far will legislators go to protect life and what effect will this have on the quality of life for the individual?

Of course it isn’t that simple, we’re not all only individuals but together we make up a society and sometimes the actions of individuals can have positive and negative effects on other individuals and on wider society.

So the debate widens to consider costs and benefits to society. I’m not going to go into this area in detail because most of the costs and benefits have already been widely discussed previously. Considerations include the immediate loss of life to a rider who is involved in a fatal accident, any pillion rider who is unfortunate enough to be involved, and any other parties who are involved in the accident. Pillion riders, like passengers in car accidents form a sad statistic as the accident is normally completely outside of their control, yet they bear the same consequences. Considerations also include hospital services, police investigations, legal inquiries, and road clean up and repair work. Individual freedom of choice should hold strong consideration, and the fact that the use or non-use of a motorcycle helmet doesn’t directly effect the health of anyone else other than themselves (ignoring the Organ Donor Effect).

The Organ Donor Effect – Mitigating the cost of motorcycle accidents on society? It isn’t a new concept, but one that has received revived publicity lately following the Missouri motorbike helmet law saga. For me the relationship between motorcycle accidents and organ donations is interesting because people will use the same relationship to argue both for and against crash helmet laws. You can even find motorcyclists citing the relationship in their arguments against motorcycle helmet laws. This multi use of the same argument is interesting, any use of the argument is in fact bizarre because the effect implies different values on the lives of motorcyclists compared to humans on the organ donation waiting list. Are not the lives of all humans valued equally? Of course they are not, if they were politicians would not be sending our young men to war but be going themselves, but that is off topic. So what is the Organ Donor Effect? Statistics show a relationship exists between motorbike helmet use and the number of fatal motorcycle accidents from head trauma. Compulsory helmet laws increase helmet use, causing a corresponding decrease in rider fatalities. The Organ Donor Effect is the statistical relationship between a decrease in head trauma related motorcycle rider fatalities and a corresponding decrease in healthy organ donations. Motorcycle riders tend to be young and healthy and have an above average likelihood of providing healthy organs following death from head trauma. Statistics have shown that for every motorcycle accident fatality from head trauma, 0.33 deaths have been delayed on the organ waiting list. Note that it is not a one to one relationship, but rather three riders have to die to save one person in need of an organ.

The argument against helmet laws citing the Organ Donor Effect tends to be along the lines of that the enactment of crash helmet laws will reduce the number of organ donations every year causing a corresponding increase in the number of deaths on the organ waiting list.

An argument for helmet laws citing the Organ Donor Effect is statistically stronger, consider that for every three biker deaths, only one persons life in need of an organ will be saved (extended). So unless the lives of bikers are somehow less important than everyone else, the Organ Donor Effect as an argument for, or against motorbike helmet legislation is irrelevant.

Butterfly Effect – Actions can have reactions further away than may initially be considered. The Organ Donor Effect when considering motorcycle helmet legislation is an interesting example of a Butterfly Effect. The use of helmets don’t only effect those immediately involved in a motorcycle accident, but can also effect third parties which you would not immediately consider – those on organ donor waiting lists. But just because there is a relationship, doesn’t mean it is an important relationship and doesn’t mean that it deserves to be considered in the debate.

More serious helmet law considerations should be around half helmets and other minimalistic helmets which offer questionable protection. If these helmet styles qualify as adequate protection under law, but do not actually adequately protect the human head in a motorcycle accident. It begs the question of whether there is any point to having the helmet laws in the first place.

In most debates that consider individual choice versus legislative control I personally favour individual choice.

But in this debate I considered two ideas, firstly whether motorcycle helmets are a good thing for people to wear and secondly whether individuals have the capability to choose for themselves uninfluenced by other people. In this situation after much thought I decided that given the choice I would vote in favour of compulsory helmet laws for all ages. Because when helmet use becomes the norm there is no longer a question of whether it is cooler to ride with or without a helmet, everyone just wears one. Ideally I would like there to be no helmet laws and every individual able to make his or her own choice, but unfortunately I don’t believe the individuals would be able to make their own choice, but rather be influenced too heavily by media, other riders, and the individual’s perception of what is ‘cool’. Peer pressure is commonly considered a child and teenager issue but I believe it is simply a human characteristic. To want to do as others do, the desire to be accepted, desire to fit in, desire to stand out. I believe that the majority of riders given the option of wearing a helmet or not would base their decision on what they believe others would think of them (what image they will portray). It is this unfortunate human characteristic that moves me in support of compulsory motorbike helmet laws.

If everyone was not influenced by everyone else, then people would be capable of thinking for themselves and all self respecting individuals would wear motorcycle crash helmets anyway.

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