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Government and Its Promotion of Buckling Seatbelts and Helmets

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Over the past few years the police have been cracking down heavily on people who do not use a helmet while driving two wheelers. At first glance, this certainly seems like the right thing to do, but, is it? Wearing a helmet while riding a two wheeler was made compulsory under the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988. So, not wearing a helmet is effectively, a crime. Laws are meant to protect people from the actions of other people. However, not wearing a helmet can only harm a single person, the rider himself. Thus, this is a victimless crime. So if a crime does not really have any victims, is it even a crime? Almost all day to day activities could be extremely dangerous if done irresponsibly. Should the government also ban touching electrical switches with wet hands?

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People should have a choice to wear helmets. Some people find full sized helmets to be constricting and also impair the side vision of the person. Anyone who has driven on Indian roads knows how useful corner-of-the-eye vision is, thanks to errant drivers and rickshawalas. In cities like Mumbai, the heat and humidity inside helmets can be extremely frustrating. In such cases, helmets do more harm than good. Since the traffic police can extract fines (read bribes) out of people riding without helmets, they have more incentives to catch people without helmets than actually manage the traffic, thanks to their low salaries.

A study undertaken by economist Samuel Peltzman in 1975 found that people are more likely to indulge in risky behavior if they believe that they will not be harmed by their actions. This was termed as the ‘Peltzman effect’. In context of helmets, this means that if people wear helmets, they start driving even more rashly, since they feel secure because of the helmets and thus, underestimate the risks. It is a similar case with seatbelts. A major part of Peltzman’s research focused on drivers wearing seatbelts in comparison to drivers who did not wear seatbelts. The drivers who wore seatbelts were more likely to indulge in over speeding and other rash actions. On the other hand people who wore seat belts were much more likely to drive responsibly. Given these reasons, certain public transport experts look at seat belts and helmets with skepticism. Some even believe them to be a reason for increasing accidents.

More than benefitting citizens these laws have helped helmet manufacturers and the governmental machinery to fill their pockets with profits and bribes respectively. If we go through trade association press releases, we can easily see how helmet manufacturer associations have been continuously lobbying governments of all states to enforce compulsory helmet laws. Politicians and industrialists always had a cozy relationship with each other, an intricate network of power and money.

The Government certainly should generate awareness about road safety among the citizens. It also should ban drunk driving and other actions which can harm other people. However, if someone’s choices and actions don’t affect anyone else, they must be respected. People should take well informed and responsible choices depending on their comfort. If the government keeps on banning anything that is potentially dangerous, the citizens will have no freedom left. Whatever your choice is, I would recommend wearing helmet, but I wouldn’t force it.   

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