Motorcycle rallies and organ donation: a curious connection

A study finds that accidents during large motorcycle rallies lead to an increase in organ donations.

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It’s an old, morbid joke that’s especially apt for hospital emergency rooms: what’s the name of someone on a motorcycle that’s passing you on the highway? An organ donor.

It’s not funny, of course. But that sad, dark humor appears to contain a kernel of truth, according to a study in JAMA Internal Medicine this suggests that large motorcycle rallies modestly increase organ donation.

Why did the researchers decide to study it?

Strong evidence shows that motorcycles are riskier than other modes of transportation, especially if the operator drives recklessly, is not wearing a helmet, or is under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.

However, over the past 20 years, the number of motorcycles registered in the United States has doubled from 4.3 million to 8.6 million. Motorcycle rallies are also popular: In 2022, more than half a million people attended the world’s largest motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. And that’s actually about 200,000 fewer than they had attended in some years.

With so many people on motorcycles converging in one place, the researchers wondered if fatalities could be increasing, and if that could temporarily boost the organ donation rate.

Their study has cast the widest net of the Sturgis rally. Focusing on towns and cities that hosted major motorcycle rallies in the United States between 2005 and 2021, the researchers recorded fatal automobile crashes that led to organ donation and transplantation. Then they compared the numbers to rates four weeks before and after the rallies at those venues. They also looked at rates in parts of the country where there have been no rallies.

What did the study find?

On average, a single organ donor can provide three to four organs for transplant, including kidneys, liver and heart. That’s why choosing to be an organ donor can change many lives.

When the researchers analyzed nearly 11,000 organ donations following auto accidents after seven major motorcycle rallies, they found:

  • Organ donors were mostly young (mean age 32 years) and male (71%).
  • On average, during each day of a motorcycle rally, there were 21% more organ donors and 26% more organ recipients than in the same areas on non-rallies dates or in neighboring regions who did not host the rallies. Sounds substantial, yet it results in just one additional donor for two major motorcycle rallies.
  • Donor deaths from causes other than motor vehicle accidents did not increase during the rally dates.

The results of this study raise new questions

The study suggests that more accidents — and more organ donations — occur on days when large motorcycle rallies are held. But there’s a lot we don’t learn that might put the study’s findings in a different light. For instance:

  • Did the fatalities occur mainly on main roads, secondary roads or off-road?
  • Was there any relationship between fatalities and passengers on motorcycles or in certain vehicles: a motorcycle alone, say, or a motorcycle and a truck?
  • How do motorcycle rallies affect injury and death rates? This study probably underestimated the overall impact because it only included deaths after motor vehicle accidents leading to organ donation. Non-fatal accidents and fatal accidents that did not lead to organ donation were not included.
  • Are the number of fatalities at motorcycle rallies higher than one would expect from the dramatic increase in crowds and traffic?

Answers to these questions could help rally organizers improve safety at these events.

The bottom line

In my view, this remarkable study has several take-home messages.

First, motorcycle rallies are associated with an increase in fatal car accidents. Knowing this, rally organizers, local leaders and healthcare professionals should take action to improve safety and prepare for more crash-related injuries. At a minimum, rally participants should be encouraged to wear helmets and discouraged from reckless driving or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Furthermore, this study suggests that motorcycle rally organizers should incorporate organ donor entry programs into these events. This could increase the number of organs available to those needing organ transplant at a time when there are significant shortages. It might even encourage people to drive safer.

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