Civic Sanskriti: Safety of child passengers still a concern
PUNE The earliest memories of children growing up in cities like Pune include rides sitting on the petrol tank of a motorcycle, standing in the front on a scooter, or even sitting pillion facing the back to get a good view of the surrounding.
Though they provide relatively cheap and convenient mobility, motorised two-wheelers used in India are not designed for carrying children as passengers. Despite the swift growth in the popularity and sales of bikes and scooters in India over the last few decades, no legislation is in place so far specifically keeping in mind the safety of children as passengers on motorised two-wheelers. This oversight has had a tremendous human cost.
Therefore, the intent of a new draft rule from the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) on safety standards for children on a motorised two-wheeler addressing the age group of zero to four years is highly relevant. The draft rules, published in October 2021 with a month-long period for inputs from the public, about the use of a safety harness for attaching the child to the driver of the motorcycle, the use of a crash helmet for child passengers aged between nine months and four years. The draft rule further suggests the use of a bicycle helmet of a specified European standard till such time that specifications are developed for India. The draft specifies that the speed of a motorcycle with a child up to four years of age will not be more than 40 kmph.
The Road Safety Network, a group of civil society organisations, advocating for evidence-based and participatory governance, arranged discussions on the draft rules. The participating road safety experts, industry representatives, product designers, representatives from schools, parents, and civil society organisations appreciated the attention of the MoRTH on this issue.
However, a clear message was that the rule-making process should not be done hastily. Almost all aspects of the design of the safety equipment need research and methods of implementation need deliberation, given the role of motorised two-wheelers in the Indian context.
There is little research and testing on the use of safety harnesses and crash helmets for children of age zero to four years nationally or internationally. The apprehension is that untested equipment may do more harm than good. The driver has little control over the child resting behind, who may lean to a side or fall asleep, and displacement of the harness due to jerks, etc.
The draft rule suggests using bicycle helmets as an interim measure. However, bicycle or sports helmets for infants and toddlers are not designed and manufactured for higher speeds but tricycles and play. Using these as alternatives may give a false sense of safety and lead to negligence.
The speed limit for a two-wheeler carrying a child of age up to four years may be kept at 25 km per hour, as specified for school zones. Other options should be developed including in the design of vehicles, the safety gear for children and storage of the safety gear, considering the Indian scenario.
Research and crash investigations should be commissioned as there is little information about the types of injuries among children of this age group in road crashes. The age group zero to four years should be added as a category in the new accidents reporting system being put in place by MoRTH in all states. Over time, the road accidents in India report published every year by the MoRTH should carry this information.
Research and testing institutes should scientifically test the different options of safety equipment, including harnesses and child helmets as has been done for child restraint systems for use in cars.
Currently, even the test guidelines for the transport of this age group on two-wheelers in the Indian context may not be well-developed.
Child specialists must be consulted about adopting safety harnesses and helmets for children in the age brackets of zero to nine months, nine months to two years and two to four years considering the child’s body, spine, skeleton, muscles, and skin, among others. Similarly, a full-face helmet should be checked for the possibility of suffocation, claustrophobia, sleeping, motion sickness, etc.
If child safety harnesses and helmets are found safe in the research, it would help if these could be provided free upon producing proof of having a young child. It will be beneficial for some parents especially from rural areas and economically weaker groups.
Government must make budget provisions for extensive outreach on child road safety. Expecting and new parents must be counselled on child road safety by paediatricians and childcare centres, and information platforms set up for the same. Given that test answers are often ‘mugged up’, it would also be useful to include child road safety among the ‘most expected questions’ in the driving licence tests.
The MoRTH notified the constitution of the National Road Safety Board in September 2021. The board would be the appropriate institution to oversee research and development of the safety standards for children on motorised two-wheelers. MoRTH should also facilitate comprehensive public deliberation on this sensitive and important topic.
Sanskriti Menon is senior programme director, Centre for Environment Education. She writes on urban sustainability and participatory governance. Views are personal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org