Wearing helmets may be a wise move, but coercing people to do so is not, and can be counterproductive.
I am sure if you take a poll, chances are that most people would be against making helmets compulsory – particularly if they make frequent trips on their two-wheelers. Why do we then have helmet laws? If you think that the main reason for them is our safety, then I am afraid you are misguided.
The main reason for the existence of compulsory helmet laws is to provide an extra source of income for the traffic police, since the government can’t afford to pay them well. If our safety was of any concern to the government, we would have proper roads to ride on instead of a mish-mash of some asphalt, concrete, and gravel thrown haphazardly among potholes.
The traffic police are not the only beneficiaries. Helmet manufacturers are also all too happy to instigate governments to impose helmet laws, because, well, you know, your safety. Making helmets compulsory also helps municipal governments raise revenues when some honest folks prefer to pay the fine instead of a bribe. That is the main reason we observe more traffic policing in February and March, as the municipal corporations try to meet their budget targets before the end of the financial year. Your safety is much more important before the summer.
Helmets cause more accidents
You don’t believe me? Here’s my case.
First, given the discomfort, suffocation and heat one must bear while wearing a helmet, most of the riders do not wear them but carry it with them. If they see a policeman, they quickly put it on to avoid being fined. I can bore you with details of multiple incidents where riders have died while carrying a helmet and not wearing it. The chances are that a rider is more likely to meet with an accident while putting it on while riding on spotting a traffic cop.
Second, riders who are not carrying a helmet to protect their elbows, and have them locked away on their vehicles, are likely to make sudden irrational decisions while riding. On seeing a cop, a person without a helmet is more likely to take immediate turns to avoid being fined, indulge in speeding, or endanger herself by riding close to a large vehicle for hiding.
Third, even when a person wears a helmet, the continuous frustration and heat makes them furious during their daily commute. Especially so in cities like Mumbai, where the heat and humidity is unbearable even when you don’t have a metal cage blocking the air circulation to your head. And as we already know, an angry person is more likely to ride rashly and indulge in violent behaviour.
Lastly, there is a hidden cost paid by every person on the road. This cost is imposed by mismanaged traffic since the traffic police prioritises looking for helmetless riders instead of managing the traffic. Believe it or not, policemen are also human: they too work in their own self-interest. An opportunity to extract a bribe is much more important to them than the management of traffic.
Most of the accidental deaths and injuries are born by pedestrians instead of riders. In Delhi, which is the deadliest city in terms of fatal accidents (anecdotally most strict in enforcement of helmet laws as well), 42 percent of accident related fatalities in 2016 were pedestrians. Now, if we are really concerned about safety, let’s make every person walking on the road wear a metal cage as well. Aren’t people without a vehicle important to society?
And then there is a moral issue. On principle, you should not be forced to pay taxes to enforce a law that protects an individual from harming herself. If you disagree, you don’t believe in “My Body, My Property.” Sitting atop mount hypocrisy, you scoff on the idea that people should be free to do what they please as long as they don’t hurt others.
I would like to end now with the following words of wisdom from Jerry Seinfeld: “The idea behind the helmet law being to preserve a brain whose judgment is so poor, it does not even try to avoid the cracking of the head it’s in.”
If you want to wear a helmet, by all means do so, but do not force the rest of us to give up our freedom.