I have been driving a bike since 2012, and often see two-wheeler accidents. This caused me to look at the data to understand why two-wheeler involvement in accidents was so high, especially as I was two-wheeler rider. The Government of India’s Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MORTH) report Accidents in India 2015 says road accidents have been increasing every year and nearly one-third of the fatalities are of two-wheeler riders (43,540). That was quite a scary thought! I decided to look for more information.
The Motor Vehicle Act 1988 says if riders are caught not wearing a helmet then they may be fined Rs.100 and if caught a second time for this offence, the fine would increase to Rs.300. The law also requires both the rider and the pillion to wear helmets that meet BIS standards. A quick survey of the streets, however, tells me that very few people wear helmets. Why is that? As a two-wheeler rider, I know helmets can be uncomfortable in our hot and humid climate and considering I rarely see the traffic police catching violators, I don’t have to worry about paying even Rs 100. And even if they do catch people, the fine isn’t much in today’s cost of living. Rs 300 is easily how much I would spend for going out for a movie.
Parliament has almost passed amendments to the Act that will make helmets mandatory for children about 4 years of age riding on a bike and the amendments call for fines that might actually hit the pocket (Rs 1000) and allows the government to suspend the rider’s driving licence for up to three months and for repeat offenders, cancel the licence.
It’s not just the legislature that is concerned; courts have also been pushing for a crackdown on violators. On July 1st, 2015, the Madras High Court ordered the Tamil Nadu government to enforce the law which makes wearing a helmet mandatory for two-wheeler riders. The Court directed the government to seize and even cancel the driving licence of violators.
Are the government and courts overreacting? Everyday, many people drive without a helmet and don’t get into an accident. So why bother making helmets mandatory? Why spend time and money amending the laws and issuing (court) directions?
A risk worth taking?
While helmets don’t reduce the number of road crashes, they protect riders from serious injury and death. Globally, research shows that wearing a good helmet and wearing it properly brings down the risk of death by 40% and that of serious injury by 70%. Many people would come back with the argument that they have ridden on two-wheelers for years without an helmet and have never been in a crash. While that may be true, it just shows that they have most likely used up most of their nine lives by now. More importantly, is the risk of death and serious injury (spinal cord injuries are common and these impact the ability to walk and use our limbs normally) worth taking? That is the question we have to ask. Some risks are smaller because the outcome is not so serious. Eating roadside food might give you an upset stomach but it is likely to be a minor discomfort and you will recover in a day or two. Death, on the other hand, is permanent. Serious injury can be too. Is not wearing a helmet today worth dying for or being stuck in a wheelchair or being bedridden, dependent on your family to take care of your every need?
How do helmets protect the head?
If you recall your high school biology, you will remember that the brain is protected by the skull but between the two, there is thin layer of liquid which acts as a cushion. When you have a road crash, the sudden impact of the head against a hard surface (like the road or a car) abruptly halts the movement of the skull but the brain continues to move (remember studying about inertia?). The brain then hits the inside of the skull and depending on the speed you were travelling it, it will bounce around inside the skull till it comes to a stop. This is in spite of the cushioning effect of the cerebral fluid we spoke of earlier. When the brain bounces around, it is likely to get damaged though on the outside we may seem okay. A good helmet that fits snugly on the head and has good padding, absorbs most of the shock (i.e energy) of the impact so the brain is protected.
Obviously the helmet needs to be a good quality one. In India, BIS (Bureau of Indian Standards) certification is mandatory for all helmets. Similarly, in other countries there are certification systems. For example, in the U.S, DOT (Department of Transportation) and Shell, in Europe it is ECE (Economic Commission for Europe), UK has SHARP and in Australia it is CRASH. So, we need to buy certified helmets to give our heads the best possible protection.
In addition there are different types of helmets that cover the head to varying degrees. Open-face, half-head, and tropical helmets weigh less. Full face helmets gives the greatest protection. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has published an Helmet manual that goes into some detail.
With all the evidence available, it makes no sense for any of us to avoid wearing a helmet. Considering how people drive in India and the number of road crashes that take place daily, we are risking our lives and the lives of our family and friends by not wearing a helmet and not insisting our pillion rider does too. I believe that a little discomfort and a squished hairdo is worth sacrificing to protect our lives. Don’t you?
Step up and take the pledge to wear a good quality helmet (and wear it properly) every time you ride a two-wheeler and to ensure that your companion on the two-wheeler is similarly protected.