Today's Paper

Enforcing helmet laws the road ahead

THE EXCEPTION: Only one of the nine riders photographed on January 2, 2007 on arterial road in Chennai is helmeted.   | Photo Credit: Photo: K. Pichumani

Sriram Lakshman

Two-wheelers form a big proportion of vehicles on Indian roads. It is well-established that helmets for riders as well as pillion-riders save lives. Tamil Nadu has paid a heavy price for not making helmet-wearing compulsory.

Chennai: Now that the Tamil Nadu Government has said it will make helmet use for two wheelers mandatory, the focus is shifting to implementation. This means ensuring that helmets are worn and also that these helmets meet minimum quality standards. The government's decision was communicated to the Madras High Court when it was hearing a petition filed by the Accident Victim's Association in 1999. The Automobile Association of Southern India and the Neurological Society of India are co-respondents in the case.

``Just because the government has passed a law, it does not mean the story is over,'' says Dr. K. Ganapathy, neurosurgeon and past president of the Neurological Society of India, who represents it in the public interest litigation. ``We have to continue with awareness programmes and education. People must realise that this has been done for their own good.'' Dr. Ganapathy is a longstanding campaigner for the compulsory wearing of helmets.

Vacillation and delay

The court hearing comes after eight years, and the government's decision to implement Section 129 of the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988 comes after an even longer period of vacillation and delay. The Act mandates the use of helmets (which meet Bureau of Indian Standards requirements) by all drivers and pillion riders of two-wheelers. The law is not enforceable on Sikhs who wear turbans. The implementation of the law through the framing of rules is left to the States. Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Delhi, and Chandigarh are already enforcing helmet laws.

Dr. Ganapathy's submission to the court cited a study, published in the American Journal of Public Health (May 2000), which evaluated the effect of Taiwan's helmet laws on head injuries. Conducted by physicians using data from 8795 cases of motorcycle-related head injuries from 56 major hospitals in Taiwan, the study analysed head injuries during a year before and after helmets were mandated in June 1997. The findings were quite startling: after implementing helmet rules, motorcycle-related head injuries decreased by 33 per cent and fatalities by 56 per cent. Average hospital stays also declined by nearly 15 per cent. Fatalities are only part of the story. ``For every person who dies, there are at least fifty persons who are semi-permanently or permanently seriously disabled,'' says the neurosurgeon.

The typical motorcycle helmet has an inner layer of polystyrene or polypropylene foam and an outer layer made of plastic, glass, and other synthetic fibres. The chief purpose of a helmet is to absorb the impact of a crash and thus prevent primary injury to the brain, rather than preventing skull and face fractures. The outer shell prevents sharp objects from puncturing the skull and also protects the inner liner upon contact with the road. The inner foam lining is crushed following impact, thereby increasing the stopping time and distance of the helmet. This, in turn, limits the accelerative forces on the brain, reducing the chance of primary brain injury.

Treatable injury

What would have otherwise been untreatable and irreversible is now treatable and reversible, notes Dr .Ganapathy, adding however: ``in the field of intrinsic injury to the brain, no progress has been made in the last 200 years. A brain cell, once damaged, is permanently damaged.''

Two-wheelers account for an overwhelming proportion of vehicles on Indian roads. According to a study done by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), deaths caused by road accidents, estimated to be 40,000 in 1986, more than doubled in 2001. Significantly, two thirds of these deaths occurred in the 16-44 age group. Tamil Nadu topped the ten States with the highest mortality from road accidents. According to data gathered by the Department of Road Transport and Highways, the number of deaths in 2004 from road accidents was 93,000 and in addition 465,000 people were injured. The Asian Development Bank says that road accidents cost developing countries anywhere between 1 per cent and 3 per cent of their Gross National Product annually.

The Chennai traffic police recorded 1136 fatal accidents in 2006; of these nearly 50 per cent were two-wheeler accidents. The silver lining is provided by this statistic cited by Sunil Kumar, Joint Commissioner of Police (Traffic): ``We know of only two people who have died with helmets.''

Surveys cite many reasons for riders not wearing helmets, including discomfort, fear of hair-loss, headache, neck pain, and some other reasons. What is clear is that all these reasons melt away when the law mandates helmet-wearing and the traffic police enforce the law. A practical advantage is that police officers who are enforcing rules against cell phone use while driving and sanctions against drunken driving will be at hand to enforce the helmet rules once they are framed by the government. Enforcing the new laws will impose virtually no additional cost on the traffic police.

Ramachandra Raja of Concord Arai Pvt. Ltd., the first helmet manufacturers in India, says that in cities like Chennai and Coimbatore there is already a sizeable population of helmet wearers, thanks to awareness campaigns by newspapers, other media, and neurosurgeons. Joint Commissioner Kumar points out that traffic police are already doing extensive awareness work and that the helmets seen on Chennai roads are, at least in part, the result of these awareness campaigns. As if to underline the point, the entrance to his office boasts a large placard advocating the wearing of helmets. Mr. Kumar adds that individual citizens can help the traffic police by ensuring that they always wear helmets and checking that their family members do not get on a two-wheeler without a helmet on.

Dr. Ganapathy, experienced neurosurgeon and campaigner, has a briefcase of carrot-and-stick measures that might be used to implement helmet laws punitive action in the form of fines; ensuring that insurance companies do not reimburse accident claims where the driver of a two-wheeler was not wearing a helmet; making it compulsory for two-wheeler manufacturers to sell helmets with scooters; Road Transport Offices ensuring that no scooter is registered without a helmet; and spreading helmet awareness through television.

Mr. Raja, however, recalls that the Tamil Nadu Government did once make it compulsory for two-wheeler manufacturers to provide helmets, but the scheme did not work. ``A helmet is an absolutely personal article it is not part of the vehicle,'' the helmet manufacturer points out. Helmets need to be chosen with care and fitted for an individual's head; they cannot be pre-ordered in bulk by dealers, as two wheelers often are.

Mr. Raja also cautions that wearing a helmet that is not perfectly fitted to one's head can lead to the helmet falling off during impact. Additionally, riders must wear helmets with properly fitted chinstraps so that the helmet does not separate during impact. British standards suggest that helmets need to be replaced every three years, since they are made of materials with limited life spans.

The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), he adds, is in the last stages of making quality control mandatory for all helmets across India, although non-BIS-approved helmets are also currently available. The price range for BIS-approved helmets is Rs.400-Rs.1500 apiece. Over the next couple of months, all helmets sold across India will have to have an ISI mark IS: 4151 to meet BIS standards.

The ISI mark is a silver holographic sticker that will be placed on top of the helmet; it cannot be removed without defacing the helmet. The mark will also be clearly visible to police officers monitoring helmet use on the roads. The BIS will enforce quality standards by requiring, among other things, that helmet manufacturers periodically submit samples of their helmets along with a count of the number of hologram orders placed by them.

Asked whether wearing a helmet restricts lateral vision which becomes particularly important in Chennai and other cities where vehicles observe little lane discipline Mr. Raja responds by pointing out that the BIS tests for vision interference and ``if you wear a BIS-approved helmet you can be sure that lateral, upward, downward vision is not in any way decreased.'' Dr. Ganapathy feels that with penalties, incentives, and quality control in place, creating awareness is the key. ``Catch them young,'' he prescribes, citing a programme in Singapore that teaches kindergarten children the life-saving importance of wearing helmets. ``The concept of preventive safety is just not a part of our culture,'' he adds wryly.

With many thousands of new two wheelers being registered every day in India, the need for preventive safety through compulsory helmet wearing for all riders and pillion riders has never been greater.