Sunday, 22 July 2012

Have No Helmet. Will Travel.

I got on my scooter the other morning, rolled it down the driveway to the street and was about to start up the engine when I realized something was wrong: I'd forgotten my helmet and was about to take off without it. I remembered it because I felt surprising light on the scooter and could even feel a bit of breeze in my hair. But helmets are mandatory where I live and besides that I like my chances better with a helmet. I'd give up that carefree feeling for the knowledge my brain's a little safer. I like having my head on straight and want to keep it that way.

That's why it drives me crazy when I hear news about American states - Michigan most recently - repealing their helmet laws. If I feel safer on a scooter with a helmet, I can't imagine going on a highway on a motorcycle without one, but that's exactly what some biker clubs are cheering about in Michigan. Even though all the evidence shows helmets can reduce fatalities and brain injuries, there are still states with no laws, more states with laws that only require minors to wear helmets, and other states repealing laws that were proven to save money and lives.

The World Health Organization says wearing a helmet can reduce motorcycle deaths by 40 per cent and reduce the risk of severe injury by more than 70 per cent. That's why it watches with concern as scooters and motorcycles become increasingly popular in places like Vietnam, India and China while helmet use remains low.

Vietnam is often sited as an example of a model for helmet law in Asia. Recognizing that it had a major problem with traffic fatalities, the Vietnamese government made helmets mandatory in 2007 for all riders and passengers on two-wheeled vehicles. But since no child under 14 can be given a sanction, few riders bother to buy helmets for children. That means it's common - the norm from my experience - to see families with parents wearing helmets and as many as three children with no head protection stuffed in between them, including soft-headed infants who hang precariously from mothers' arms.

There seems no hard and fast way to make helmet laws stick. In India, the Transport Department has said that starting July 23rd it will not register a two-wheeled vehicle unless there's an invoice for a helmet attached to the document. There's been a rule about wearing helmets since 2006, but, as The Hindu reports, it "got diluted over the years." The Transport Department doesn't want to harass people, according to a deputy transport commissioner but it hopes the use of helmet will have an added benefit: preventing riders from using mobile phones while driving!  (Take note of the picture.)

The WHO reports that although helmets are required in China, only 16 per cent of riders wear them and there is "no consensus" on how to enforce the law. This video of a woman rider escaping a run-in with a truck in China will probably not do the campaign for helmet use any good.

Finally, here's a report from Road Safety Fund on the low use of helmets in Asia and Africa and some of the attempts to change that.

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