It is an irony. In 1996, when the Sena-BJP alliance government came to power for the first time, it exempted two wheelers from the mandatory helmet rule. Twenty years later, the alliance is in power and is trying hard to make people use helmets irrespective of cities and villages. This time, the transport experts and activists are welcoming the initiative.
In the past two years, the Fadanvis government has taken several steps to make people wear helmets while driving two-wheelers. First, it started taking an indemnity bond from every person approaching the RTO for a two-wheeler licence. Thereafter, it asked two-wheeler dealers to provide two helmets each, while selling new vehicles. At the same time, it conducted a drive, in which helmetless riders were compulsorily made to attend two-hour counselling session at RTOs about the importance of helmets .
Later, it issued a new directive---“No Helment No Petrol”---to curb deaths because of bike accidents, last July. It was to be implement from August 1, but it did not take off owing to an agitation by petrol dealers, who refused to cooperate as the government stipulated stringent punishment for them for selling fuel to helmetless bikers.
Learning from the fiasco, the government amended the rule and hiked penalties for traffic violations, including riding without a helmet. According to the new rule that has already come into effect, the fine for riding without a helmet is Rs500, instead of the previous Rs100.
Result: After so much many initiatives, the people still ride bikes without helmets and most traffic cops just charge Rs 100 fine for violation of the rule.
Why the focus on the mandatory use of helmets? Maharashtra has the dubious distinction of topping the number of accidents among states in India with over 65,000 accidents, which claim about 13,500 lives and leave more than 35,000 injured, annually.
RTO officials said the Apex court directive forces both — the Centre and the state government — to take these steps.
“As per section 47 and 48 of the Constitution, public health is the responsibility of the governments and since road accidents are directly related to public health , the governments are forced to take steps as per the Apex court directive,” said a senior official, requesting anonymity.
The official said the apex court has set up a committee, which has suggested various measures to reduce the number of accidents. The state and central government have to submit a report on the action taken to the committee periodically.
Maharashtra has a vehicle population of 2.79 crore, of which 2.03 crore are just two-wheelers and their number is increasing rapidly. In 1995, Maharashtra had just 24.07 lakh two-wheelers, while in 1985, the number stood at just 7.45 lakh.
“Before 1985, there were just a few bike and scooter manufacturers and the number of two-wheelers on roads was limited. However, a few years later the picture changed with the entry of several new players in the two-wheeler market and the number shot up in a matter of few years which was why the rules about helmet was first introduced. In the past decade, aggressive marketing by manufacturers along with easy availability of finance to buy the vehicle has led to an explosion in the number of two-wheelers in India, especially in the cities,”said an official.
Wearing a helmet by both — rider and pillion — is mandatory as per section 129 of Motor Vehicle Act 1988. Except Sikhs, nobody is exempted from the rule. Even they should have a turban on their head while riding. But even 27 years later, the number of people following this rule is still a minority.
According to RTO officials, maximum number of riders found wearing helmets only in Mumbai. In other cities and parts of the state, very few people use these protective headgears. The number of pillions using headgears is negligible across the state.
Besides other reasons, the experts and RTO officials blamed wrong policies of the governments in the past for the public apathy towards helmet use. For example, the then Sena-BJP alliance government had exempted people from using helmets except on the state and national highways in 1995, because Pune citizens made a hue and cry over the issue.
According to senior RTO officials, the rule was withdrawn after the HC directive, but it left an adverse effect on the public.
Ashutosh Atrey, a road safety expert, said the lack of strict enforcement of rules, along with a lethargic approach of enforcing agencies, lack of public awareness, no fear about law among people, are some of the reasons behind the failure.
“Sometimes, instead of enforcing the law, the traffic police catch people to complete targets,”said Atrey.
Transport department officials also suggested the use of new technologies like CCTV (closed-circuit television network) surveillance, RFID, E-Challan and others, for strict enforcement of helmet rules.
“The use of a helmet is required as per rules and therefore we advise people to abide by rules,” said state’s transport commissioner Pravin Gedam. He said there was no need for new rules.