India Insight

On Delhi’s deadly roads, life-saving helmet not required for women

By Atish Patel
March 3, 2012

India’s roads are among the world’s most dangerous, claiming thousands of lives each year. Cows and elephants rub shoulders with sleek foreign-made sports cars on highways across the country.

But two-wheelers remain India’s favourite mode of transport. Millions of scooters and motorbikes are sold every year, accounting for 75 percent of all vehicles sold in the country. Entire families are seen seated on these affordable and fuel-efficient vehicles, zipping in and out of packed traffic in cities and towns.

Enforcing road safety measures remains a huge problem, leading to one road accident every minute and a road accident death every four minutes in India.

But surprisingly, in New Delhi, women who drive two-wheelers or ride pillion don’t, by law, have to wear a helmet.

Women in the Indian capital are often seen sitting side-saddle on the back with their hair freely fluttering in the wind, while their male drivers wear helmets, a life-saving accessory in case of a crash.

India’s Motor Vehicles Act, enacted in 1988, states “every person driving or riding” a two-wheeler must wear protective headgear. The only group of people exempt from the law are turban-wearing Sikhs.

But in Delhi, following protests by Sikh women, the city incorporated another exemption, making it “optional for woman whether riding on pillion or driving on a motor cycle to wear a protective headgear.”

Sikh women argued that the law stopped them from practising their religion.

This week, the national government planned to introduce harsher penalties for road safety violations, including a larger fine for not wearing helmets that meet safety standards.

But an amendment to the law to make it compulsory for women to wear protective headgear doesn’t seem to be on the cards.

The rule has perplexed many. Even the police in Delhi have called for a change, enrolling female athletics star P.T. Usha to encourage women to wear helmets.

Sixty-four women were killed in road accidents on two-wheelers in 2010 and 50 in 2011, police figures show.

“We are of the opinion that if women were wearing helmets in these cases, many of them could have survived,” Satyendra Garg, joint commissioner of Delhi’s traffic police, said in a Facebook post last year.

In a country where the authorities struggle to enforce the law, particularly on the road, where seat belts are rarely worn and jumping red lights is the norm, changing attitudes toward safety is probably more important than a change in the law.

We must “get into the habit of safety consciousness whether there is compulsion by rule or not,” Garg said.

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