The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority seems to have moved from the crackdown on smoking in public places to going after motorcycle drivers without helmets. Public reaction has been cynical, ranging from predictions of another “here today, gone tomorrow” campaign (as with the public smoking) to suspicions that the apprehensions end up as extortions, with the hapless drivers bribing their way out of the predicament.
While people’s perceptions are to some extent based on reality, all this cynicism prevents us from recognizing that we do need to do something about the many public health hazards Filipinos face. I am going to concentrate on the issue of helmets. The bottom line is that helmets do protect people from head injuries which can cause serious lifelong disability, or death.
The last Philippine Health Statistics yearbook, which is a compilation of national data, reports a total of 19,800 deaths from accidents (I excluded homicides and murders which, for some strange reason, are counted under accidents). Of these 19,800 deaths, one-third or 6,100 were transport-related.
There is no breakdown of how many of these fatal accidents involved motorcycles, but we do have more recent information in the form of the “National Electronic Injury Surveillance Fact Sheet,” issued every quarter by the Department of Health and available on its website. The numbers in each report will change but the pattern is clear: transport-related injuries always top the list, with motorcycles accounting for the majority of injuries in this category. Tricycles come in second, which shouldn’t be surprising since these are really motorcycles with an added passenger cab. In addition, each quarterly DOH report notes that only a tiny percentage of the injured (and dead) motorcyclists were using helmets at the time of the accident.
Do helmets help reduce risks? Filipinos who have been to Vietnam know that it is a nation of motorcycles, and chaotic ones at that. More than 90 percent of the country’s vehicles are motorcycles. In December 2007, a law requiring helmets for motorcycle drivers and passengers was passed. I was there shortly after the law was passed and was impressed at how rapidly motorcyclists complied, thanks to very strict enforcement.
At the time the law was passed, an average of 40 people were being killed in motorcycle accidents every day (you read that right: every day). In the first year after the law was passed, injuries and deaths drastically dropped, and it was estimated that some 1,500 lives were saved.
Our Motorcycle Helmet Law or RA 10054, sponsored by Sen. Ramon Revilla Jr., was passed and signed into law in March 2010. It requires all motorcycle riders, including drivers and back riders (I suspect this is a Filipino-English word, used to refer to someone riding behind the driver), to wear standard protective motorcycle helmets at all times while riding a motorcycle. This applies to any type of road and highway driving.
There are stiff penalties for not wearing helmets: a fine of P1,500 for the first offense, P3,000 for the second offense, P5,000 for the third offense, and P10,000 plus confiscation of the driver’s license for the fourth and succeeding offenses.
Let me take a slight detour here for entertainment. Earlier, in 2007, the Metro Manila Council (MMC) passed a resolution to implement a “Dual Motorcycle and Helmet License Plate Numbers Policy,” requiring motorcyclists to use helmets with their vehicles’ license plate numbers appearing on the helmets as water-proof stickers. The stickers were supposed to be placed on both sides of the headgear and had to be readable from a distance of 25 meters.
The purpose of this policy was to allow victims of motorcycle snatchers to identify the modern-day road robbers so that law enforcers could go after them.
I didn’t know about this resolution until I was researching for today’s column and reacted with incredulity. I checked if the website might not have been put up by a prankster, but it turns out that the MMC resolution was very real. Not only that, it was supplemented by another resolution, numbered 07-07, called the “No Face Shield” policy, requiring that the back driver (still another Filipino-English term, probably the same as the back rider) use a helmet “where the shield for the face is tilted upward so that the face of the back driver would be revealed and identifiable by the public.”
I don’t know if the resolutions are being enforced or if they are even enforceable, not being ordinances. I did find several articles, and even a video showing motorcyclists in a noisy protest rally against the MMC resolution.
We don’t need more of these crazy MMC resolutions, but we definitely need to implement the Helmet Law. The exemption of tricycles needs to be reviewed, using an analysis of accident statistics as a guide for policy.
We should also be looking into the possibility of requiring helmets for cyclists. There is no international consensus around this issue, with some people fearing that such a requirement would discourage even more people from using bicycles, but from a safety angle, it looks like helmets on cyclists can also help to reduce injuries and deaths.
It is also important to educate the public about the proper helmets to use. The helmets must conform to Department of Trade and Industry standards. Note, too, that children should not use adult helmets because these are too heavy, even if they seem to fit on their heads.
Watch the Filipino newscasts and you will find that every night, they report on vehicular accidents, including motorcycles. The reports always have grisly footage, the cadavers and bodies blocked out but blood often still visible. I have watched these newscasts while in urban poor communities and people will pause, and shake their heads, sometimes commenting, “Terrible,” but I don’t think there’s any long-term effect in the sense of getting people to be more conscious of the need for motorcycle safety. In fact, I wonder if at times these news reports embolden the men to become reckless as a display of masculinity.
Perhaps our news networks shouldn’t just feature footage of the accidents but also interview motorcyclists who didn’t use helmets and survived accidents, but must now live with the terrible costs of disabilities such as paralysis.
I have noticed, too, that more and more motorcycle drivers do use helmets, but it is rare to find MMDA enforcers using helmets while on motorcycles. We are quick to make laws, quick to punish people for violating the laws, but terrible at getting law enforcers to follow the law.