Every two minutes a child or teenager dies in a road accident in some part of the world, while another 38 children are injured. In Tamil Nadu, in 2018 alone, 439 children died and 3,717 children were injured in road accidents, according to the State Crime Records Bureau statistics. While helmet use can save many childrenâ€™s lives and protect them from crippling injuries, any discussion on the use of helmets is readily sidestepped.
Children are vulnerable road users along with senior citizens and people with disabilities, according to the WHO. To protect children from deaths and severe injuries in road crashes, the new Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act 2019 has made it compulsory for children riding pillion to wear helmets. According to the Act, only one person can ride pillion irrespective of whether he/she is a child or adult, and it is illegal for a person to travel pillion without a helmet.
In Tamil Nadu, one can hardly see a child wearing a helmet on a two-wheeler and traffic cops donâ€™t even consider it a violation. The state achieved a 24% reduction in total accident fatalities in the year 2018 as compared to the previous year. Yet the state traffic police lacks focus when it comes to protection for children on the roads.
The reality, as in many low income countries, is that the two-wheeler is the familyâ€™s only means of transport. For most middle income and low income people, two-wheelers are the only way for families to get access to education and health care, or meet other social and economic needs. The law enforcers in Tamil Nadu seem to be more on the side of reality than on the side of the law. Penalty for traffic violations is being charged on old rates and the enhanced penalty charges according to the new Motor Vehicles Amendment Act are yet to be implemented in the state, as a result of which compliance levels for the helmet rule is low.
Rajesh Kannan, Assistant Commissioner of Police, Coimbatore West, says, â€śI prefer to go by application of mind. If for a genuine reason a child needs to be transported on a motorcycle, the helmet rule cannot be applied strictly,â€ť he says.
Says S Senthil, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Salem City, â€śTwo-wheeler riders have to be convinced about wearing protective gear for the eyes and helmet for the head in the first place before forcing their family members or pillion riders and children to wear helmets. Although helmet-less travel on two-wheelers is an offence for both adults and children, practically more serious traffic violations and regulation of traffic compete severely for the time and resources of traffic police.â€ť
An inspector at the Chennai Traffic Police headquarters says cases are being booked if children are carried on the pillion but not if little kids are seated in the front between the petrol tank and the seat. However, data on cases booked against violation of helmet rule for children is not available though the number of helmet rule violations of pillion riders is available. Furthermore, the State Crime Records Bureau, the Transport Department and the Tamil Nadu Accident and Emergency Initiative do not have data on death and injuries of children in road crashes pertaining to various categories of vehicles, roads, etc. Data accuracy can help finetune strategies, policies and give focused attention to childrenâ€™s safety, say road safety experts.
Awareness and compliance
Save LIFE Foundation carried out a survey in January this year in Chennai with respect to use of rear seatbelts and the safety of children on Indian roads. Only 6.4% parents own child helmets, the survey revealed. Nationwide, about 20% respondents owned child helmets, and even in the other metros this figure is closer to the national average. Also, only 17% of the child respondents said that they wear a helmet and a meagre 4% said that they had been caught/fined by the police at least once. These figures are the lowest amongst the 11 cities surveyed under this study.
The Tamil Nadu Police social media cell, which has a quite strong follower base, has been promoting traffic awareness considerably with its creative posts. There are posts highlighting events of traffic police campaigning to school children about the importance of wearing helmets. But such campaigns are neither widespread nor sustained.
Availability and affordability
In Europe, helmets cost approximately 3% of the value of a motorcycle. In low income countries, motorcycles are a path to overcoming existing mobility gaps. Unfortunately, helmets are quite often left out of the equation due to their price on the one hand and due to the simple lack of additional funds on the other. In low income countries, the cost of child helmets can range prohibitively from Rs 2,000 to Rs 25,000 as they are imported and of high quality.
But in India, cost and availability are not major barriers. Regional Manager of Steel Bird Helmets, Paras Kumar, says that his company has been making helmets for children that conform to ISI standards and been supplying them to dealers. Even before the passage of the amended Motor Vehicles Act, 1% to 10% of the overall production was childrenâ€™s helmets. After the passage of the new Act, there has been only a very marginal increase in the demand, Paras adds.
â€śThis is perhaps due to the poor enforcement of the law by the police. We are prepared to withdraw production of certain models and divert capacity for production of childrenâ€™s helmets but the market has to pick up,â€ť he says, further saying that his company supplies standard helmets at Rs 450 to Rs 500, which is not expensive when seen as a ratio of the vehicle cost.
Vega Helmets, another popular brand, also has a range of childrenâ€™s helmets. Helmet manufacturers do not seem to face challenges in the design of helmets with suitable weight, and inner and outer circumference to suit children. Ramsingh, a helmet seller in Salem town, says he stocked 10 child helmets after the new law was enacted but it took three months to sell them. The slow movement of childrenâ€™s helmet could be because the common man finds it difficult to spend that additional Rs 450, Ramsingh opines.
Call for action
Chennai-based former UNICEF Child Rights expert and consultant Vidhyasagar says the state government and the police should take some hard measures to protect children from road accidents if it wants to achieve the sustainable development goals and fulfil the obligations under the United Nations Commission of Right of Children (UNCRC), which among others includes ensuring right to safety for children.
Dr S Chandrasekaran, retired Head of the Department, Orthopaedics, SRM Institute of Medical Sciences, Chennai, who handles a variety of child trauma cases says that motorcycle crashes are chaotic, and that children run the same risks as adults. The brain and skull of a child are in a more vulnerable developmental stage and the neck muscles of children are weaker than those of adults, he adds. Children are more likely than adults to suffer severe consequences of concussions.
As the national income per capita (GNI) rises, in low income countries fleets can grow almost exponentially, which may result in a rapid increase in the number of motorcycle crashes, and children and other vulnerable groups could be prime victims, say child rights activists and road safety experts.
Road safety experts recommend the following best practices if India is serious about protecting children from road crashes.
A low income country may consider introducing a government subsidy programme, initially only for child helmets. The hospital treatment and other related costs incurred in the case of a crash will be far greater than the cost of a basic helmet.
For example, since 2007 the government of Vietnam has continuously improved its laws and regulations to promote helmet-wearing by motorcyclists, including a provision that holds parents responsible for ensuring that their children wear appropriate helmets when they are passengers on motorcycles. Helmet-wearing rates have remained above 90% since the introduction of the motorcycle helmet law. In Malaysia, research is underway to develop helmets specifically suitable for children.
Small children must not be taken on motorcycles. Therefore, many countries introduced a minimum age and/or a minimum height for children to be transported on motorcycles, according to a UN Helmet Study.
While wearing helmets can save 42% lives and avoid 69% of injuries to riders, according to the UN Helmet Study, WHOâ€™s Helmets, a road safety manual for decision-makers and practitioners, points out that when motorcycle helmet laws are enforced, helmet-wearing rates can increase to over 90%.
This article is written as part of the World Health Organisationâ€™s Media Fellowship on Road Safety 2019.
G Rajasekaran is a senior journalist based in Salem and reports about development issues in the western districts of Tamil Nadu.