The decision of the Gujarat government to make wearing helmets optional in the state would not only jeopardise the safety of the public and make two-wheeler users vulnerable to grievous injuries but could also trigger a similar move by other states, a national coalition of NGOs working to promote road safety in India has said.
Expressing grave concern over the issue, the members of the Road Safety Network and the Active Traffic Consultative Committee (ATCC) have submitted a representation to Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari, urging him to immediately enforce the amended section 129 of the Motor Vehicle Act, which would deter other states from following a similar move.
Ashim Sanyal, Chief Operating Officer, Consumer VOICE Road Safety Network, said the Gujarat government’s decision of making helmet optional would set a wrong precedent for other states. “It is contrary to the constitutional responsibility of safeguarding the safety and well-being of the public. It is also contrary to the intent of the Central legislation that aims to reduce road fatalities and strengthen road safety in India,” he pointed out.
Making a strong case for urgent action in the matter, Ranjit Gadgil, Programme Director of Pune-based NGO Parisar, said “it is imperative for the Central government to intervene in the matter and prevent such dilution of the law by the states.”
India is one of the leading countries in road traffic fatalities and severe injuries and all states, including Gujarat, have a dismal record in this regard. Fatalities of two-wheeler users last year stood at 55,336, with 43,614 (79%) of them due to non-use of helmets and most of being youths.
Gujarat recorded 7,996 fatalities in 2018, an increase of 10% from the previous year. Of these, 28 per cent fatalities were in urban areas. A total of 2,546 two-wheeler users (riders and pillions) were killed in the state, and 1,546 were found not to be using a helmet. It is an undisputed fact established by road safety research that helmet reduces the chance of a fatality by 40 per cent and severe injury by 70 per cent in a crash. Even at low speeds, in the event of a crash, a rider not wearing a helmet can suffer severe injuries, which can lead to permanent disabilities.
The use of helmets is mandatory under the law, including for pillion riders. The amended Motor Vehicles Act takes away the power of any state to provide exemptions, other than that provided to Sikh men wearing turbans. This amendment has been made specifically to strengthen the helmet law to address the high fatality and injury rates amongst users of two-wheelers in the country.
The Supreme Court has also taken cognizance of this public health issue and set up a committee to monitor the implementation of various directives it has issued in this regard; the mandatory use of helmets being one of them.
The view of the Gujarat government is a brazen and direct violation of the order of the apex court. Several other high courts, including in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra, have struck down exemptions to the helmet law, terming it as arbitrary and contrary to the intent of the Motor Vehicles Act.