Save your head, save your life

A study shows that helmets are 37 percent effective in preventing deaths in motorcycle accidents, and 67 percent effective in preventing brain injuries.

Representational Image/freepik
  • Read Time 5 min.

As the promulgation of the Road Safety Bill is very long overdue since the draft was never endorsed by the parliament, Nepal’s Road Safety arrangements heavily rely upon the legislative frameworks formulated to manage motorized vehicles and their operation. The prevailing Vehicle Transport Management Act and its subordinate bylaws/instruments only address the issues around licensing and vehicle registration, road signs and signaling, driving conduct, motor vehicle standards related to their import, and driver working hours.

These legal documents do not concern the safety of road users, however closely related to the safety of drivers, occupants or other road users sharing road environments. Over the past 20 years since the publication of the first World Report on Road Traffic Injuries, a lot has changed globally, in terms of the development and implementation of evidence-based safety measures. It is also well-documented that wearing a helmet saves motorcycle users from serious head injuries or deaths when they are involved in a crash.

Despite Article 130(2) of the Vehicle Transport Management Act (2049) clearly provisioning mandatory use of safety motorcycle helmets both by the drivers and the pillion riders, helmet use by the latter is negligible. A study has found the agencies responsible for its enforcement are not well aware of the rule and are not prepared for its smooth implementation. There are many factors that can be listed but the major factors are political will, resource capacity, public attitudes and challenges in changing road user behavior that influence legislative provisions regarding motorcycle helmet rule.

If motorcyclists wear a helmet, it can protect against head injury and chances of survival multiply.

Yet Nepali legislation does not speak about helmet use for child passengers. Motorcycle is not merely a vehicle for family transportation. It has become the means of public transport (ride-share) in Nepal. It is also because motorcycle users are increasing exponentially. So, it is high time to re-introduce compulsory helmet use rules for pillion riders as well. 

Almost two decades ago, the Nepal government banned pillion riders from wearing a helmet citing criminality and security threats associated with armed conflict. This retraction by the government was a major setback ever in enforcing helmet rules. Nepal’s efforts to implement and enforce other existing legislative provisions are awfully hindered in absence of sufficient institutional structures, human resources in them and all these can be attributed to being the consequence of a lack of resource planning. 

Nepal Police lacks the strength in terms of the number of its personnel. The amount of road lengths and number of vehicles shot up by over 500 percent whereas the traffic police strength is as same as it was during 2009. Considering the high traffic volume, over half of its traffic personnel are deployed in Kathmandu Valley. Nepal has a total of less than 4,000 traffic personnel and is monitoring a fleet of over 3.5 million vehicles! Before 15 years not all the districts and headquarters were connected by a national road network but today.

As it is elsewhere in the world, road and traffic safety rules enforcement is a viable source of revenue in Nepal. Rupees 1.5 billion was generated from traffic fines with the help of this limited traffic strength during the Fiscal Year 2021/22 alone. 

This amount is almost equivalent to what the State is spending in terms of salaries and remunerations to the entire Traffic Police force. Although a significant amount of revenue is generated, the traffic police department chronically lacks personnel, equipment and resources. Therefore, not all traffic rule violators can be booked leading to rising impunity and carnage on our roads. We have no argument with those who put forward the case for digitalisation of traffic policing and making traffic policing smart.

We request the concerned authorities to select 5000 suitable candidates from hundreds of those queuing migrant workers at Tribhuvan International Airport and sanction the much-needed additional traffic personnel posts throughout the country. 

We cannot blame the public for the non-use of helmets while riding a motorcycle as a passenger because the State once banned people from wearing them. As a result of some incidents that took place in 2001, the then Administration banned using a full-face helmet or one with a visor. The helmets introduced during this era were not safe for motorcyclists in terms of saving them from head injuries. 

In absence of a national strategy to increase the use of pillion rider helmets, traffic rule enforcement did not get enough attention and importance. Despite the Rules and the Procedures clearly mentioning the responsibilities of the office bearers, none of these documents fully describe plans related to implementing the helmet rules mentioned which makes it further difficult.

The international road safety community, led by the United Nations and coordinated by the World Health Organisation, has conducted research, generated evidence, and formulated guidelines, and reports on best practices to reduce road traffic injuries including those among motorcyclists with a focus on increasing the correct use of standard helmets. It doesn’t need rocket science knowledge to conclude “those motorcycle users who do not use helmets are at the most risk of fatal or serious head injuries.” 

An American National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) analysis showed that helmets are 37 percent effective in preventing deaths in motorcycle accidents, and 67 percent effective in preventing brain injuries. Similarly, a recent hospital-based study conducted by NASA Foundation Nepal found the proportion of drivers who sustained a head injury was only 13 percent and this proportion was 37 percent for the pillion riders. This implies that pillion riders are at three times higher risk of head injuries; all of the drivers were wearing a helmet but only three percent of the pillion riders said that they were wearing a helmet. Motorcycles are solely used by a single driver, but many also use them as a passenger.

Among the 305 motorcycle user patients we studied, 232 (76 percent) were drivers and 73 (24 percent) were pillion riders. So, there is a large proportion of motorcycle users of pillion riders who do not use a helmet but suffer the most head injuries if involved in a crash. 

Mandatory helmet use, use of ISO Standard Helmets and stringent penalties are evidenced as the most effective measures to protect motorcycle users in a recent road safety manual for decision-makers produced by WHO, FIA Foundation, Global Road Safety Partnership (GRSP) and the World Bank. It has also evidenced “compulsory skill test for motorcycle permit” as another effective measure which is also strongly advocated by NASA Foundation Nepal.

It is also true that Nepal’s roads are not safe for motorcycles due to several roadside hazards including potholes, pebbles, rocks and sand, stray animals, and roadside parked vehicles. If motorcyclists wear a helmet, it can protect against head injury and chances of survival multiply. 

We have seen backlash or hostile response from a fraction of the public which is also right in the sense that if you cannot make the roadside safer by removing the roadside hazards mentioned above, how can you compel the public to use a helmet? Helmets don’t prevent road crashes by itself. The nation’s responsibility is to save people’s lives from preventable deaths.

Therefore, for effective implementation of the motorcycle helmet rule, the State must be ready to provide motorcyclists with quality/standard helmets at affordable prices, in a safe road environment, and with efficient post-crash response services. 

Doing this is also aligned with the principle of sharing responsibility for road safety. Once these measures are in place, the State can force a citizen to comply with other rules. However, the converse is also true because there are so frequent motorcycle crashes, correctly wearing a quality helmet is more important now to save more lives.

However, the State lacks the preparedness for mandatory helmet use by motorcycle users. The government can start by adaptation of well-established helmet-use global best practices, developing helmet safety action plans, and making political leaders more responsible for endorsing, and advocating compulsory helmet use. Along with these activities, the government needs to allocate a sufficient budget, convince people to mandatorily use helmets, and strictly monitor helmet use in practice.

Bhagabati Sedain is a Lecturer at the Department of Population Studies, Padmakanya Multiple Campus, Kathmandu. Puspa Raj Pant is a researcher affiliated to the West of England Bristol University, UK.