Let’s be at the helm of road safety with helmets

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A family of five ride on a bike at a market in Rajasthan, India.
Two-wheeler crashes account for the highest death rate around the world, compared to other road traffic crashes. The situation is particularly alarming in South Asia. Photo: Sumit Saraswat / Shutterstock.com

It is a sight very familiar on the roads of South Asia—an entire family perched precariously on a motorbike—the father balancing one child in the front and the mother clasping another close to her, as they weave their way through traffic. If a serious crash were to occur, the family is extremely vulnerable among fast and heavy motor vehicles. What’s more, the rider is often the only one wearing a helmet, leaving the rest of the family unprotected.

Two-wheeler crashes account for the highest death rate around the world, compared to other road traffic crashes. The situation is particularly alarming in South Asia, where motorized two-wheelers account for up to 70% of total vehicles  with motorization rate per population far exceeding that of cars. Motorized two-wheelers are also 30 times more prone to crashes compared to cars on a per km travelled basis.  

In terms of fatalities, with only 10% of the global vehicle fleet South Asia accounts for 25% of the road fatalities each year, with up to 40 percent of crash fatalities in the region being among two-wheelers.  The majority of the victims are vulnerable road users including low-income families and young commuters, often without adequate access to medical and social safety nets. The burden of the crash is therefore not only borne by the victim, but also the entire household which is left struggling financially.

Beyond being a gut-wrenching humanitarian tragedy, this is a development challenge that impacts health, economic growth, and societal welfare.

Keeping a Lid on Road Crashes

The good news is many of these two-wheeler deaths are preventable, and injuries are mitigated with a simple solution: the proper use of certified helmets worn by all riders.

According to a UN study, 3.4 million people died from motorcycle crashes globally between 2008 and 2020, of which 1.4 million lives could have been saved with proper use of helmets. A certified quality helmet can reduce the risk of death by 42% and injuries by 69%. 

However, experience in developing countries have shown that addressing helmet safety is complicated and requires a coordinated multi-pronged approach with various stakeholders.

For instance, India has a robust national standard on helmet quality, but low wearing rates outside of cities and availability of non-compliant cheaper alternatives undermines this progress. On the other hand, in Bangladesh and Nepal, the lack of a robust national standard has prompted the local market to be flooded with unregulated, low-quality versions, both imported and locally produced.

As a result, most helmets available in South Asia would not be of quality to provide adequate protection. And those that do meet quality standards are too expensive and not designed for hot and humid climates. 

The need of the hour is for every country to comprehensively examine these different aspects including legislation, enforcement, availability, and awareness and develop a tailored and effective strategy for helmet safety with the participation of all stakeholders.

Helmet Safety Interventions Across South Asia
Countries in South Asia need to comprehensively examine different aspects of helmet safety including legislation, enforcement, availability, and awareness and develop a tailored and effective strategy.

On the Road for a Safer Tomorrow

The World Bank and the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Road Safety recently joined hands to launch the Safe and Affordable Helmet Program, advocating for UN-standard helmets across South Asia.

The program is facilitating the deployment of helmets that meet UN safety standards, are comfortable in hot and humid climates, and come at an affordable price–less than US$20. 

The initiative is also exploring the capacity of local companies to produce these standard quality helmets within South Asian countries, and opportunities to incentivize local manufacturers to produce or import UN-standard helmets.

Recently, we launched the Safe and Affordable Helmet Program in Dhaka and Kathmandu, partnering with governments and local stakeholders to distribute helmets that comply with international safety standards. These events reinforced the importance of advocating for UN- Standard helmets by raising awareness among various stakeholders, promoting safe behaviors among young people, and highlighting critical road safety challenges and solutions. We were especially impressed to see the enthusiasm from local manufacturers in their commitment towards better helmet standards.

Elements of a Full Face Motorcycle Helmet

We have a long road ahead of us. If we are to achieve the vision of halving the number of road crash deaths and providing access to safe, affordable, and sustainable transport to all by 2030, we need a coordinated effort across many sectors : government, law enforcement, the private sector, civil society and development partners.

The United Nations High Level Meeting on Road Safety, expected to take place in summer 2022, is an opportunity to build this momentum among stakeholders. It is an opportunity for us to take everything we learned from the last Decade, present solid commitments and to mobilize political and financial leadership, ensuring that the 2030 horizon for road safety is indeed one of action and delivery.

The time to act is now. Together, we can mitigate this global crisis in road safety, and one day, even reach the homestretch of no lives lost due sound safety measures enforced across the roads in South Asia.

Authors

Jean Todt

UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Road Safety

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