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Safety or convenience?

December 01, 2017

IN the last couple of decades we have gone from selling a few hundred thousand motorcycles a year to about two million motorcycles a year. The total number of motorcycles on the road has, as a result, exploded across Pakistan. Where this has eased transport difficulties for millions and created markets for new businesses or facilitated the expansion of others, it has also led to a number of unintended consequences.

The number of accidents have also increased manifold over the same period. Colleagues in the medical profession say they are seeing a lot more people with head and limb (broken bones) injuries. Given that driving speed, in most cities, is not very high, fatalities are not as high as they could be. But the cost, in terms of pain, medical expense, and foregone wages, is considerable.

Not only are motorcycle drivers themselves getting injured in larger numbers; doctors are seeing a lot more injuries to passengers as well, including women and children, who sit behind the driver. In the case of women, since they sit sideways, a more precarious position to be in, their chances of falling and/or getting injured in case of an accident are even higher. Interestingly, doctors mentioned that they are also seeing a lot more injured pedestrians/cyclists as well.

Wearing of helmets by motorcycle riders can reduce the incidence of head injuries by 90pc.

Limb injuries are hard to avoid when motorcycle numbers increase. But international experience has shown very large reductions in head injuries if motorcycle riders wear a helmet. In some jurisdictions the reductions have been up to 90 per cent. This is a massive saving in cost and human misery. But it requires compliance with and effective implementation of laws on wearing helmets.

Increased pedestrian and cyclist accidents and injuries are related to lack of proper infrastructure provision for pedestrians/cyclists. Though we have invested quite a bit in roads, bridges and underpasses, we have made this infrastructure a lot less pedestrian friendly. There are no footpaths next to most roads, there are not enough pedestrian crossings and walkways where we have created signal-free corridors and we do not have any lanes for cyclists anywhere in the country.

A significant reason for accidents is the lack of awareness about and implementation of driving rules. Lane discipline, observing traffic signals, driving against traffic on one-ways, and taking shortcuts are all culprits. Automobile drivers also do the same but the consequences of an accident are much graver for motorcyclists. Training and awareness campaigns have a role to play here. But, much more important, is the implementation of traffic rules. We have to force people to obey rules, for themselves as well as for others.

Helmets have to be worn when sitting on a motorcycle. There should be no two ways about it. It is not too expensive to buy a couple of helmets (for the driver and rider) if you can buy or rent a motorcycle. It is very important to ensure that children sitting on motorcycles are also wearing helmets. This has been done by many countries and it is not too difficult to impose this. And low income is not an excuse either. The cost, if an injury occurs, is much higher. Helmet rules have not only been imposed in developed and rich countries: some developing countries have also imposed them and quite successfully so. Sri Lanka is an example from our region. There are good examples from East and South East Asia as well.

Medical professionals mention that they see a downturn in head injuries in the winter months. One explanation might be that fewer people drive motorcycles in the winter. But a more convincing argument is that more people wear helmets in the winter. So, given helmets are not too expensive, many people already own them and the cost of not wearing a helmet is very high, imposing the law should not cause any hardship for people.

Recently, we have seen the police and motor vehicle department in Lahore making Lahoris change the number plates on their cars to the officially sanctioned ones. Whoever is supplying the new plates has made a lot of money. But, more importantly, it shows that when the government wants to, it can impose laws on drivers. Given the big savings on misery, pain and health and lost labour costs that we expect from motorcyclists wearing helmets, why is the government not working on this?

The new law and its implementation should not happen suddenly. The government should announce that from a certain day, say two months away, all motorcycle riders will have to wear a helmet. It should also announce the penalty for defying the law. To break the initial entrenched helmetless-driving equilibrium, we might have to impose a regimen of high fines initially.

The most important part is implementation. Once a date has been announced, there should be universal and relentless implementation of the law. The equilibrium will change fairly quickly. Eventually, wearing a helmet will become habitual. The equilibrium on wearing seatbelts was effectively enforced on the motorway. Active implementation in the cities is now changing the equilibrium in urban areas quite effectively now.

In the last month alone, I have seen two young people lose their lives due to motorcycle accidents. Neither of them was wearing a helmet. In one case, the young man was drunk and overspeeding and hit a pole by the side of the road. In the other the young man was returning from office and was run over by a speeding minivan. In both cases, the head injuries were severe. In both cases, they would have had a chance at survival had they been wearing helmets and we would, possibly, not have two grieving families. Is this not reason enough to focus on the issue of road safety now?

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, December 1st, 2017