By Nishthar Idroos –
Criminals always tend to be slightly ahead of the law and enforcing agencies. Sooner or later the inevitable takes place. Wearing a helmet is for personal safety and wearing a full-faced helmet is even safer or let’s just say has greater mitigating factors. However penalising law abiding citizens to comply with arbitrarily enforced laws is primarily not consistent with good governance and more importantly compromises personal safety issues of rider citizens. Putting lives of general folk in danger whoever they are should take precedence over everything. Sporadic incidents of robberies with persons wearing helmets being the chief perpetrators is doubtless a reality we cannot afford to overlook yet a blanket imposition of an inconsistently applied law is counter-intuitive if not wholly callous. How do you measure who experiences the biggest risk? Is it the bank employee or the motorcyclist on the road?
Implementation of new laws or existing laws should not be enforced without substantial prior warning, especially when its implementation has been spasmodic and impact quite extensive. Let’s face it, our roads are notorious death traps, the notoriety has only got worse over the years. Motorcyclists are increasingly becoming vulnerable. With or without a helmet the probability of a fatal or non-fatal encounter is only marginal. Balancing a two wheeled vehicle is always more difficult than the traditional four-wheeled one. I remember in the early eighties the accident ward was known as the “Honda Ward” this was immediate post- open-economy of Sri Lanka.
Cyril Premaratne hails from a small hamlet off Mirigama. He is a kithul treacle and jaggery trader. Twice a week he travels in his rickety Honda 125 CC motorcycle with a very conspicuous and wooden crate neatly and securely fitted on to the rear of his motorcycle. A full faced helmet is mandatory for him; his wife has persistently advised him not to take any risks with regard to his personal safety when travelling on motorcycles. It was only six months ago a close family friend met with an untimely motorcycle accident which left him paralysed and subsequently in a comatose condition for over 40 days. Because he was wore a half-faced helmet his face was badly damaged. He eventually succumbed to his injuries and came home in a casket. These kinds of revelations are nothing new for motorcyclists in Sri Lanka. The writer too has lost friends and relatives on account of motorcycles. The threat is existential and the fear and reluctance to wear half face helmets is legitimate.
Cyril travels at least twice a week in excess of 200 kilometers to collect his weekly stock, a further 200 kilometers to distribute them to retail businesses within the district. It’s hell of a lot of travel time on a motorcycle. It’s a very tiring process. He does what he knows best to put food on the table. He has a wife and two young children. Additionally he also has his invalid mother to look after. Controlling a puny motorcycle with a weight in excess of 40 kg behind him is a major challenge, if not a palpable risk. Anything less in weight has financial implications on his small business. It’s all about resource maximization and making processes efficient, there is nothing wrong in it. Nonetheless, the daily risks are too many to ignore. He has to negotiate deplorable road conditions. They’re usually laden with pot-holes of uneven sizes. Some interior roads are narrow; vehicles that overtake often get too close and tend to knock his crate. With a tremendous weight behind aligning the motorcycle is a recurring challenge.
The exponential rise in motorcycles is very visible in our roads. Certainly it has become most convenient and economical mode of transport to get to point B from point A. For this year alone over 50,000 motorcycles have been registered thus far. For the motorcyclist a full face helmet provides much more than total protection. It provides protection from the elements and more importantly a cover against dust, vehicle emissions and nasty things that come flying both from CTB and Private busses. They include mucus, beetle spatter and whose indigested Kottu of the previous night that managed to take a brief respite in the clogged intestine and got ejected as a result of the driver applying brakes. These are routine happenings motorcyclists put up on a daily basis.
These days Cyril is a very worried man. He is very uneasy about the government’s unclear policy with regard to wearing of helmets. They have spent tidy sums of money to acquire virtually tampered proof helmets primarily for their personal safety. Why would legislators penalize an innocent and unsuspecting group just because some brazen desperadoes have committed nasty things? Soft targets have been sub-urban banks and jewellery shops. Even though the threat is real compromising the personal safety of people is ridiculous. This is the easy way out without handling the issue head-on and accepting the challenge. The very edifice of this piece of legislation is anti-people.
The duty of a humane government is to alleviate the problems of the people and not exacerbate it. The Minister in charge must eschew implementing arbitrary and myopic legislation. Cyril Premaratne and XYC Bank have equal rights under the law to carry on a legal business without compromising their personal safety. Any apparent or hidden threat to one must not be mitigated or eliminated at the expense of the other. If it means building an entirely new security apparatus at a price, so be it. Extending and maintaining a peaceful economic environment free of threats is the exclusive duty and prerogative of the state. Relegating imminent personal safety needs of people on account budgetary ramifications is the quality of an unkind and miserly government.
The government must also engage with the financial community in a comprehensive manner and keep a healthy and dynamic dialogue going. This is a priority. Even after completely addressing the current threat the government must have an on-going relationship and receive constant inputs from these institutions to assess, re-evaluate and re-strategize. The financial community should also have a major social responsibility not to inconvenience their clients and the common folk in general on account of security.
I am not a security expert, yet I can recommend a two-tier entry system with armed guards at the entrance. I would also recommend a clear, visible signage indicating No-helmet zones. The doors at the entrance must be automatic with well trained guards opening and closing them. In the event of a robbery the guards should be able to completely lock the door and re-position. A guard or two must be dedicated to noting down motorcycle number plates exclusively at the entry, immediate vicinity and in the parking area. Comprehensive CCTV linked to the nearest police station via internet is another option. I do not know how practical these recommendations are but I am completely and vehemently opposed to the blanket ban on full faced helmets.
The suspension of the law came as speedily as its purported re-implementation. This looks very ugly on a government that’s trying everything possible to be people friendly and enhance their overall welfare in every conceivable way. It behooves that next time around greater consideration and contemplation is expended before something like this goes public.
Its 7. 30 pm in the evening and Cyril Premaratne and his family are watching the evening news. Predictably the anchor announces the death of another two people killed on the road riding motorcycles. This time both the rider and the pillion rider were wearing full faced helmets. Cyril’s wife Ranmali looks uneasily at her husband. Their two children completely absorbed playing. Somewhere in the hamlet an old carpenter ravenously chewing beetle is providing his final touches to another glistening casket.