Is there really any point in wearing a helmet? The city traffic police might have announced a deadline which came and went amid much talk of awareness and the need for motorists to change on their own accord. But what are the scientific merits behind the argument and does it outweigh considerations such as the hot weather, neck ache and a myriad other reasons for not wearing the safety headgear?

Of the 600-odd people in the city who lost their lives in road accidents in 2010, at least 200 of them would have been alive, had there been universal compliance with helmet usage. From 2008, one-third of all those who died on the city's roads in the last three years could have survived, had they worn a helmet. Enforcing just this one measure could have turned Chennai into a city with one of the lowest accident rates in India.

Dinesh Mohan, coordinator of the Transport Research and Injury Prevention Programme at IIT-Delhi, says “Studies show that the compulsory use of helmets by two-wheeler riders alone can reduce accident deaths by 20 to 30 per cent.”

The rate at which the number of two-wheelers in India is rising is 20 times the rate at which the human population is growing. In such a scenario, fatalities are only going to rise if things do not change fast.

The risk of death is nearly 2.5 times more among riders not wearing a helmet compared with those with a helmet. Studies show that serious head injuries can happen even at low speeds (10-15 kmph).

The Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital and the Stanley Medical College Hospital together receive 70 to 90 cases of head injury every day. Ninety per cent of them are due to road traffic accidents (RTAs). A disproportionate number of these, about 75 per cent, are youngsters in the age group of 18-40. At least three young men using two wheelers die every 10 minutes in India due to head injuries.

K. Ganapathy, a neurosurgeon and a former president of the Neurological Society of India, says “For a young Indian, the chance of being killed or disabled from a road traffic injury is higher than a heart attack, HIV or cancer. Head injuries have acquired the status of a public health problem.”

But statistics can convey only so much. It leaves out people like Kavita Ramkumar, who lost her husband in March, 2008. “He usually wore a helmet. But that night, he left it behind. He never came back. People do not realise the seriousness of the issue unless they get victimised. Even with a good education and family support, I've found it very hard. Every one need not go through what I went through.”

Dr. Ganapathy says that while individual freedom needs to be respected, it cannot always be left to one's judgement. “Society should be concerned about whether a two-wheeler rider uses a helmet or not. In spite of the phenomenal number of two-wheeler accidents, the chance of sustaining a head injury while using a two-wheeler is less than .01 per cent. This is the reason why the desire to use the protective headgear is not there.”

And then there are genuine grievances expressed by motorists such as R.K.Sundaram, a hearing impaired person, who speaks of the need for exemption because “the helmet presses against the hearing aid and causes pain as well as disturbance to hearing”.

In response, K.P.Subramanian, a former Urban Engineering professor at Anna University says “Exemptions do not work – be it for women or persons with medical issues. Everyone's head is equally valuable. Technological intervention is the answer. The government must fund research projects in its institutions to find technological solutions for various problems ranging from lack of air circulation in helmets to discomfort for the hearing impaired.”