A helmeted rule

In Twinkle comic, there was this tale of Suppandi, youthful but wise in years, who goes on a picnic with his friend Maddy. They are on a rural road, and encounter no traffic. They come to a bend on the road. There is a tree by the side of the road. Suppandi, however, suggests that they sit on the middle of the road and have their food, since they don’t see any vehicles on the road. Pretty soon, a guy comes in his car, turns around the bend, and surprise! Two fools, having their picnic in the middle of the road. Trying to avoid them, he crashes into the tree nearby. Suppandi rises up, surveys the scene, and says solemnly – it is a good thing we sat on the road, instead of under the tree.

Comics are a good source of wisdom.

Helmets are compulsory in many places. Helmets for bicycle riders. Not really sure if WHO (the World Health Organization) mandates it or not, but apparently they have studies that helmets save lives (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2006/pr44/en/http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/road_traffic/countrywork/ind/en/). And sure some regional judgements quote WHO statistics. In a place called X, some lawyers protested against mandatory helmets for motorcycle riders. There was this article in The Hindu, where the author suggested, that helmets are for a person’s safety. Who can ever argue with that? Sure, you are on a motorcycle, fall down and bump your helmeted head. If the helmet did its duty, then you are saved from injury. Simple, no arguments here. It is in fact too simple, that no arguments should be allowed. That exactly was the author’s logic. Apparently the lawyers had several issues, mandatory wearing of helmets was just one among many. We don’t know what the lawyers’ reasoning was, probably the place had a gag order on public discussion of this safety issue.

Helmet rules in this place come and go. But in the recent instance there was this guy, a doctor, who claimed, in “Letters to the Editor”, that in 40 years of practice he had encountered about 25 thousand cases of motorcycle accident victims. His obvious agenda is to promote the mandatory helmet rule. Four decades back in small towns, there were just a few people with motorcycles. A villager or rich guy, might have a Royal Enfield. His stance, the slow paced ride, and the wide distance given to him, might have avoided all accidents. He’s also not a wage coolie, trying to meet some deadline, or has to be on time, for a meeting with his boss. Three generations of his family might have ridden the bike without a single accident.

About two decades back, lighter motorbikes came. Youngsters those days, to impress their colleagues, or others, would occasionally speed, and get injured. Even big cities like Chennai or Bangalore, you might hear just a couple of two-wheeler accidents a month. That too only if are tuned to all talk or news about accidents. And today in these cities there might be about ten accidents a day, where a motorcyclist is injured. The reason being, that people have become more cautious, motorcycles very common, that youngsters don’t have a need to impress anyone. So how could this “doctor” have encountered 25 thousand cases, unless every case in a mid-size city came to his hospital. When this guy was in attendance, for the last 40 years! With cities twenty kilometers across, and having several hospitals, it would require magic to get every victim to this guy’s hospital. Lies, damned lies, and statistics! Most serious accidents are on highways, from excessive speed between cars, buses, and bigger vehicles.

In western countries on residential roads, or rural roads, at intersections, you’ll encounter the “Stop” sign. To westerners, India’s model of traffic (until recently) is chaotic, and unsafe. Indians are used to the flow model, not the western model, stop, observe, observe again, and then go. Even Darwin’s evolution doesn’t flow! Evolution became punctuated equilibrium. Why? Because we can’t see the intermediate stages. Quick periods of evolution, when the optimum is reached, optimum with the most survival adaptations, and then things remain stable. Stop and Go. No flow. That leads to an issue, how can the eye evolve in steps, unless it can predict in advance, that a certain set of muscles will be useful, when the eye finally begins to see. Not only can something as complex as an eye not evolve in steps, but if we throw in the fact that the human “brain” is now wondering how the eye evolved, something is totally amiss with Darwinism. We can try working backward, in reverse, check some fish or salamander in dark caves, and see how they lost most of the functionality of the eyes. Their eye muscles would have atrophied. But the reverse, devolution, unfortunately does not explain forward evolution.

Skipping Darwinism, lets get back to the flow model. At an intersection, a person can go in 3 different directions – straight ahead, turn right, turn left. If there are 4 people, coming to the intersection, from 4 directions, then we have 12 possibilities. So 12 people can come to an intersection, and take different paths. In India, people will not stop and go, all 12 will slow down enough, to understand the intent of others, and go their way. No accident. If someone seems to come too fast, or seems to lack judgement, others will sense that, and react accordingly.

Now to do this, apart from the fact, you need slower speeds, you need to be able to sense another person’s intent. Sunglasses – no! Helmets – no! Harder to judge the other person’s intent. But more importantly, helmets reduce peripheral vision. Not a whole lot, but just that little bit, to impair judgement in a flow scenario. Just removing the helmet makes one feel, that they are out of tunnel vision mode, and seeing in 3D. Would accidents be more or less without helmets?

Folks when they wear helmets feel a little more invulnerable. That means more speed. And reduced peripheral vision. Less able to absorb the whole scenario. More accidents perhaps?
Helmet influence in many cases is subtle. There are some folks, the moment they wear their helmet, are reminded of their mortality, and become cautious. But those are exceptions, rather than the norm. The average person is cautious, and more aware, without a helmet.

There is another side to helmets as noted here (http://www.cyclehelmets.org/1012.html). When those driving cars saw helmeted riders, they were more likely to go too close. That can make the motorcyclist lose balance, and get injured. Also, going back to the peripheral vision issue, our ability to judge distances on either side, whether a car is too close or not, is not so good, increasing chances of losing ones balance in a tight scenario.
Then there is the weather. Helmet rules come and go, and even though the cops enforce this, I had never seen a cop in a helmet, until very recently. Why? Let’s check our schools, we have shirts, pants, ties, and shoes. Shoes in this weather? Do we need to imitate the uniform of the waiters (according to Subramanian Swamy)? Most schools also have the Singaporean, penal colony style lawn grass in their “gardens”, and decorative palm trees. That’s the foundation of smart cities, promoted by McKinsey boys, consultants to world governments. Isn’t smart city a modern version of penal colony, with monitored, carefully regulated, and fully taxed, living. So sweat, socks, and shoes are ok. And the rest of the dress?

I think, it was about two years back, we landed in a college, my friend and I. There were mostly elementary and middle school students, showing off their projects. Then there were the higher secondary school students (11th, 12th). The lecture halls where they were making the presentations, were fully air-conditioned. Girls and guys had laptops. Guys were in pants and shirt, with an overcoat. The girls were in surprisingly short skirts, and they too had their overcoats. What were they presenting? Yes, global warming, a very endearing topic for the world improvers. Kosher glo-bull warming of holo-hoaxian proportions! That would explain the short skirt. The overcoat? Well, global warming is now climatey changitiness. Just in case things become too cold for comfort. The dress covers both hot and cold extremes.

That leaves us with just the head, which needs to be helmeted. For the unbelievers, hot weather and helmets, means dandruff, and itching. Women had an extra reason, helmets and humidity can cause hair loss. And some hair styles seem to exclude helmets. So they suggested gently, that God had given us our heads (skulls) to protect what is inside. They were perhaps implying that God has given us heads so that an individual can decide the risk to her life and limb based on her understanding of the local context.
When the hot weather really went over your head, some sought temporary exemption from the helmet rule. But making a law with exemptions is same as letting people decide for themselves, a strict no-no. How do you ask for an exemption? Like in kindergarten? One raised finger to pee, two raised fingers to shit?

Itching! What would you do if you have this need to scratch the itch on your helmeted head? While driving! That means another distraction on the road. Did I mention that I never saw a cop wearing a helmet until recently?

Sometimes in places where there are flying insects, there is a chance with helmets, these insects enter your ear. Why? The wind is in your face, and a insect hitting your face, moves toward your ears, and enters it. Chances are higher with a helmet. Yet another distraction.

Once you stop at a place, now you have an extra thing to handle, your helmet. You have to carry it with you, or you can lock it on your motorcycle. There are lots of people, rural or otherwise who have mopeds. These are convenient to carry milk cans (for a milkman), sacks of produce, etc. A helmet in hand, and those tasks become harder or impossible. On a street with traffic, and parking issues, that disadvantage means only one thing – more chances of accidents.

The link that I referred to earlier (http://www.cyclehelmets.org), also mentions several other things. Higher speeds, protecting just the head, will lead to spinal injuries. Fall with a helmet on, can rotate the head abruptly, twist and injure the neck. Lower speeds, the slight increase in weight of the head from the helmet, makes a person bump his head more. Concussions can happen from the impact, even with helmet on, because the cushioning from styrofoam is marginal. Sharper objects, yes, the outer shell can cushion and spread the force.

Also with children, and even perhaps adults, with helmets on, and the head heavier, they are less likely to balance properly, and more likely to fall in a way, that bumps their head. Or get hit by other vehicles. After all don’t all of us feel slightly disoriented with a helmet on?

So how do we engineer statistics that say helmets reduce accidents in a population as a whole? Should public policy should be made on such statistics? It is all so obvious in a simple scenario – fall, bump your head, helmet spreads the impact, and you are saved.
Proximate causes and their effects can be compelling. If someone throws a stone at the car, the windshield can shatter and injure the occupant inside. We can save lives by making the windshield and windows out of solid steel plates!

The public can over-think an issue. They may not find WHO statistics convincing. Fortunately, in some places, with mandatory helmet rule, we have gag orders against public criticism. Strengthening the helmeted rule. A rule, so perfect, and reasonable, that it is unlikely to leave you scratching your (helmeted) head! The heroes who save us from ourselves, like Suppandi, will be celebrated in the comics of the future.


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