Enforcing change?

November 18, 2006 at 9:59 am (Sarah's Posts)

This letter to the editor was in The Times of India yesterday.  It refers to recent controversies over laws forcing drivers of rickshaws and two wheelers to wear helmets.  In Pune, the law was passed and then had to be repealed because of widespread protests.

“Respected Sir,

Please tell to some higher officials we don’t want helmets to be made compulsory for the following reasons.

1) Bad roads and path holes

2) Traffic jams

3) Carrying helmets every wear with us like a child

4) Getting loss of hairs

5) We can’t pickup a call, due to it we should park and take out helmet and scart, by the time we do these things the call will get cut. 

First of all life is short.  By making helmets compulsory we can’t enjoy our lives because many people nowadays are loosing hairs and taking treatment. ”

 The roads and drivers in my city and in Mumbai are beyond terrible and there are a fair share of trauma cases.  So my question is this–if there is a policy that is known to save lives, how much coercion should go on to make it happen? Should auto-wallahs be forced to wear helmets for their own good?  Or is it up to any individual to decide what their own risk should be?



  1. msoule said,

    Helmets aren’t manly.
    That’s my first thought. There are lots of good reasons to wear them (like not breaking your head open). And none of the reasons they give in the letter are very good ones. But they endure so much danger in those autorickshaws as it is that I think they might have a hard time convincing these guys that there is much to be gained from wearing helmets. I think it’s a good idea but I don’t know what the incentives could be. Fines? Norms? Arpita, ideas?

  2. misarita said,

    I think that we should have a big celebrity campaign with Amitabh Bachan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amitabh_Bachan) shown wearing a helmet. If nothing else, I would be greatly amused.

  3. jjk said,

    Is there any externality, or is not wearing a helmet a crime that harms nobody but the rulebreaker? In my less-socially-acceptable thoughts, I sometimes think that people’s access to medical care should be somehow dependent on how much their condition is their own stupid fault. I feel better about my tax dollars going to support the person who was paralyzed from birth than I do about it going to the person who is paralyzed because he got drunk and fell down a flight of stairs.

    p.s. Helmets are sexy. Pass it on.

  4. msoule said,

    jjk, I beg to differ.
    The economic circumstances of the men in question are often not “their own stupid fault.” The roads are not bad because of them and they have no agency to fix them. Their modes of transport and livelihood are not unsafe because of something they did. If they drive more slowly, they may take fewer passengers per day, resulting in a smaller take at the end of the day. If they are in debt, their reasons for being so may be beyond their controls (Indian landlords and moneylenders, for instance, are infamously unfair in their terms) and they may be required to pay large sums to debtors.
    These are just a few ways in which society has condemned a certain subset of the population to unsafe circumstances and we owe it to them to try to increase their level of health.
    I concede that sometimes, it is their own stupid fault that they drive badly. And if a frat boy at an elite university takes a tumble down some stairs one night because he is blind drunk, does society owe him healthcare? I don’t know what the socioeconomic ethics of that situation are and I’d like to hear what you think.
    Another argument against helmet-wearing is that it might actually make them drive more hazardously because their personal safetyis more assured. This might increase risk for everyone else. It’s the SUV phenomenon (that may or may not exist, but seems to make sense to me): when people feel safer in their vehicle, they don’t mind taking more risks or getting in more accidents. That’s why every near-miss I’ve had in my little Honda Civic has been with the driver of an SUV who simply doesn’t care to pay enough attention to where they’re going. Thoughts?

  5. Arpita said,

    Ha-ha Sarah I love ur idea…I swear ur starting to think like a true Indian.
    If you ask me I think it should just be made compulsory, as it is in many cities in India like Delhi and Kolkata- you are fined heavily if you don’t comply and I’ve rarely seen people breaking the law. It’s the best way to get people to obey rules here….
    Laws pertaining to helmet use in Pune have been fluctuating for a few years now. I remember about four/five years back, when the government for the first time announced the rule, despite major protests, there was a huge ruckus. There was a mad rush to buy helmets (there was a deadline given and a fine of Rs200-400 could be imposed if u were caught without a helmet)…..For a while, helmets were actually out of stock in the market. Hehehe. My helmet even got stolen 🙂 For about a month everybody religiously wore a helmet…then suddenly people started protesting again, some politicians to gain votes from people started supporting them, saying that wearing helmets shouldn’t be mandatory. Voila- Back to square one. Helmets are out of the picture, the debate continues…Then I think sometime at the beginning of this year, there was talk of deadlines once again and protests were revived…But still no consensus has been reached.

    If you ask me, don’t give anybody a choice. If you see the statistics related to fatalities in motorcycle accidents, you’d think likewise. And I don’t see how it can do any harm. I’ve been wearing a helmet for the last 6 years whenever I’m on a bike- till date I haven’t noticed any hair loss (touchwood) 🙂

    Oh and I somehow don’t see rickshaw-wallas agreeing to wear helmets. It’s going to take some mighty convincing, to say the least. There’s more hope of getting motorcyclists to comply, coz there are states where helmet usage by cyclists has been obligatory since as far back as 1976(Delhi).

  6. Aaditya said,

    Fantastic Sarah, now u thinkin like a real Indian.. and that IS a compliment.. hehe.. anyways, looking at indian mentality getting ur head squashed in an accident is a reason not good enough for ppl to wear helmets.. tell them it increases their sperm count or gives an eye color change, and they will follow.
    But jokes apart, this problem has to be ahndled keeping in mind the public scenario. I think one solution could be producing helmets at larger level and giving out GOOD QUALITY HELMETS with each bike… Since u get them for free, u can’t crib abt having to spend money and BAM!! then if u don’t wear them u get fined.. u have to show ppl dat u are doing enough to expect a cooperation in working of law like this… otherwise wat happened in Mumbai last yr will be repeated.
    Same rule was applied STRICTLY in Mumbai last yr.. Heavy fines, begging bikers.. ahhh!! but worse part was shooting helmet prices… helmets worth Rs.100/- were being sold for 300 or even 5oo… there were cheaper dummy (useless) helmets for 50 bucks… lets not create one more situation like this..
    God bless all the brains on the road..

  7. jjk said,


    You’re right; I’m not familiar with the local conditions of the infrastructure or the driving forces of the economy in India. I’m thinking largely in terms of the people I see riding their bikes or motorcycles recklessly here in the U.S. Your second paragraph (“These are just a few ways…”) is the most compelling argument I’ve heard in favor of mandatory helmets.

    To answer your question, I don’t know the right answer about the hypothetical frat boy. It doesn’t seem right to me that public money (i.e. my money) would go to his care, when it could go to others who are less directly to blame for their medical conditions. One response has been to displace the blame by a few levels, and manufacturers of dangerous products like alcohol, tobacco, guns, and CD-Rs pay taxes that nominally support the needs of those who have been harmed by their products. But that still seems to me like misdirecting the blame away from those whose actions directly caused harm.

    I’ve also read that the “SUV phenomenon” you mentioned applied to the seatbelt law, in terms of increased pedestrian fatalities.

    Incidentally, I am fond of my Civic.

  8. msoule said,

    Thanks, jjk. I feel strongly about arguments like that and it’s nice to hear that they are indeed compelling. I appreciate that.
    To Sarah, Aaditya, and Arpita: we’ve looked at the case of two-wheelers. In the US, helmets are also mandated by law (Americans, back me up? Or not if I’m wrong). However, two-wheel traffic is not half as prevalent here as it is in India or the rest of Asia and thus such laws there might be more politically prickly. Lee, what are the regulations about helmets like in Cambodia?
    I think that helmets should definitely be made mandatory but that in order to avoid a situation like the one in Mumbai that Aaditya described, there ought to be a time frame by which one had to have a regulation helmet (can the government patrol “dummy helmet” makers? Would they? Would such patrols be effective in rooting out bad helmets?).
    There could also be subsidies made available in the form of certificates given to poor drivers that could then be given to helmet-sellers in lieu of real cash that could then be taken by the vendors to a bank to be cashed. I’m no policy expert, but I was trying to think of something that the government could distribute that could not easily be exploited by bureaucrats for their own monetary gain.
    Also, can we address the idea of three-wheeler traffic and auto-rickshaw drivers being required to don helmets? That’s what my initial comment was directed towards and that measure might take a little bit more doing.

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