It is compulsory for two-wheeler riders to wear safety helmets under Section 129 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. The rule also says that a helmet should have a thickness of 20-25 mm, with quality foam. It should also have an ISI mark and follow the Bureau of Indian Standards. Yet, the resistance against safety headgear has always been high.
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Gangotri from Save Life Foundation clarifies that the rule for pillion riders varies from state to state, even though Section 129 of the MVA clearly spells out that the helmet is mandatory for all two-wheeler users, both driving or riding. However, only some cities, such as Bengaluru, Mumbai, Pune and Delhi have made the rule compulsory for pillion riders, she agrees.
Puducherry citizens, who resent the headgear, were enraged when Lieutenant-Governor Kiran Bedi turned traffic cop and came out on the roads to tick off helmetless riders during Road Safety Week. But the controversy took on a political hue when Chief Minister V Narayanasamy in black clothes led protestors on a dharna outside the Raj Nivas, her official residence, on February 13th, fuming that rules were being imposed on them forcefully, rather than in phases. Legislators broke helmets in the assembly. The All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) legislators wore earthen pots like helmets and asked Kiran Bedi not to “over-reach”.
On February 10th, the Lieutenant-Governor tweeted:
When there’s no culture of wearing a helmet in Puducherry and its CM keeps stalling enforcement & every 3rd day there’s a fatal accident, due to non wearing of a helmet,where does one begin?Giveup or take it in one’s own hands as well,alongside challenging enforcement agencies? pic.twitter.com/VQAUbYgUdU
— Kiran Bedi (@thekiranbedi) February 10, 2019
But if Puducherry’s political grouse against the headwear sounds droll, Pune took it a step further. A month earlier, on January 9th, the Helmet Sakti Virodhi Kruti Samiti (HSVKS), comprised of politicos, businessmen, social and consumer activists banded to protest against police commissioner K Venkatesham’s mandate for helmets. They performed the last rites of a helmet at a crematorium, adorning it with a cervical collar, a wig and garlands.
The President of the HSVKS made an interesting point to TOI: if Sikhs are exempt from wearing helmets because of their turbans, why shouldn’t the Pune-ites wear pagris? One rider even wore a cooking pan on the plea that it was just as useful as a helmet!
Citizens just do not like the helmet. A survey by Exide Life Insurance in 2017, studying 1,118 persons in the 10 cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Chandigarh, Patna, Lucknow, Kolkata, Pune, Bengaluru, Chennai and Ahmedabad, revealed some worrying details. It showed that almost 57 per cent of two-wheeler drivers and 74 per cent of pillion riders do not wear helmets.
Reasons behind the protests
Among all the Indian cities, the most number of protests against the humble helmet probably came about in Pune.
“Well, it’s really become a Pune-specific thing that has created a strange and unique ecosystem,” said Ranjit Gadgil of Parisar, an NGO in Pune. There have been six protests so far. He said that the sporadic protests began by some ‘activists’ backed by politicians who want attention, so the enforcement rule gets hit. The traffic police had not been firm enough in enforcement, to begin with. In a survey of 4,000 riders in Pune, Parisar found that only 28% of the riders seem to be wearing helmets.
Gangotri from SaveLife Foundation said that their own surveys have shown that only 20.1% parent respondents owning child helmets. This seems rather shocking, especially as 92.8% are aware of their benefits to their children.
According to the Exide Insurance survey, the reasons for neglecting helmets vary: comfort makes 29% skip it, followed by 13 % who cite cost, while about 16% seem to believe that helmets are not mandatory by law. But finally, 22% are motivated by sheer “force of habit”.
But it is this year that the aversion to helmets seem to have found expression in such widespread, active protests. In Puducherry, it seems to be driven more by political protest against an “authoritarian” L-G. On the other hand, the protests by Pune residents are more reflective of urban ire.
Activist Vivek Velankar told the TOI that the rule is being enforced because catching helmetless riders is easier than implementing traffic rules! Indignant residents ask why have the rule at all, when the speed of the vehicles in the city is not more than 20 to 25 km per hour in narrow roads, leading to heavy traffic jams? The authorities need to first resolve pending traffic problems, said Velankar.
Moreover, the Pune government cannot provide 24 lakh helmets for riders so quickly. Many Puneites seem to feel that they are not disturbing anyone else by not wearing them, and hence the law should not have a problem with that.
Other protesters cited health reasons, such as loss of hearing and “spondylitis,” hair loss and spine problems due to their weight. Those who wear spectacles too have found it difficult to wear helmets.
Pune’s Regional Transport Office (RTO), invoked a rule under The Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, to make two-wheeler dealers sell a couple of helmets along with their vehicle in January 2019. A survey has shown that enforcement of the rule and intensification of the drive improved compliance with the rule by 4 percent. Pune’s traffic cops refused to duck or listen to the activists’ demands and photographed, e-challaned helmetless protestors and fined errant riders, which in turn led to a great deal of resentment.
So, why enforce helmets?
Simple reason: because helmets are life saving. A UN Motorcyle Helmet Study in 2017 shows that they can prevent about 15,000 two-wheeler annual deaths in India. Hence, four out of 10 motorcyclists can be saved from crashes if only they wear a helmet. It also specifies that helmets improve the chances of surviving accidents by 42 percent and helps riders to avoid injuries by 69 percent. This is especially important as the maximum number of road accident deaths happen in two-wheeler mishaps.
Gadgil from Parisar says that their NGO is actively involved in enforcement. through a decade-long struggle to enforce helmet rules. “That is why we took care to build up awareness, create conversations, involve students from colleges and institutions who could join the support. We kept feeding the media with information, caught the moment and built up the momentum,” he said. The Police Commissioner himself was told that he had better have the “guts” to enforce the rules.
The Bombay High Court ruled in 2005 that the Constitution permits only the Right to Life, not Right to Death. The citizens do not have the right, therefore, to opt to die, according to Gadgil. He also pointed out that if protestors argue that the government needs to pay more attention to improving roads, then it only strengthens the argument that the infrastructure is not equipped to protect helmet-less riders. Hence that argument too is invalid.
Even if one chooses to ignore all arguments, hard statistics is telling enough. In 2015, the National Crime Reports Bureau reported that 43,540 deaths of two-wheelers accounted for 23% of total fatal road accidents. The maximum deaths were reported in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. Pune police commissioner, Venkateshan, told Pune Mirror that in just the two months of the year so far, 211 citizens have already lost their lives in fatal road accidents. The aim of the police is not to launch a drive ‘against citizens’ but to ensure ‘safe and smooth riding’.
Protect your head
So what happens when you don’t use a helmet?
Sometimes nothing happens – but that is only if your stars are well-aligned and you are lucky. If your head does hit the pavement, your brain moves forward. It rams against the bones inside the skull, which might get deformed and would tear your nerve fibres. These would never heal.
Many riders don’t wear helmets with the buckle or strap. Some helmets might not stick to the Bureau of Indian Standards. In that case, an accident can still lead to “concussion, severe brain damage, seizures, maxillofacial injury and cervical spine injuries,” an AIIMS doctor told The Hindu. Major injuries can also result if helmets are not worn appropriately.
A story to conclude the discussion
The most ironical thing in this regard happened to Philip A. Contos, 55, when he was riding with 550 motorcyclist members of American Bikers Aimed Toward Education, known as ABATE. This group was lobbying for motorcycle awareness and freedom from New York city’s mandatory helmet law.
But Contos hit his brakes, toppled over with his Harley Davidson and went head down on the pavement. He was rushed to the hospital but died on the way.
The doctor gave his verdict: A helmet could have prevented his death.
Helmets, therefore, are healthy, not hateful. Strict enforcement and more awareness drives could help to turn the wheel towards a safer world.