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5 December 2020

Jaewynn McKay: Helmet law scope gives me headache

Wednesday 19 February 2020 | Published in Editorials


Jaewynn McKay: Helmet law scope gives me headache
The overwhelming majority are content to toodle along at 40kph or less, in daylight, doing their shopping, going to church, dropping their children or mokopuna at school, getting to and from work. 20021819/ CI Tourism

OPINION: Flimsy helmets for sale locally would offer very little protection when falling off a motorbike travelling at speed.

I’m really torn on this matter of changing the road laws. I go along with outlawing distractions like talking on the phone, or worse, texting while driving, and my husband always wears a seat belt and insists that our son Tinirau does too. I’m not quite so diligent, but if it was compulsory, I would comply.

However, I have a real problem with forcing everybody to wear a helmet when riding a motorbike. It seems to me to be a kneejerk reaction inflicted on the overwhelming majority of law-abiding citizens because of a handful of people who have broken at least three existing laws, and in some cases paid the ultimate price; in the meantime, it still doesn’t deal with the root causes of the problem.

Like most of us, I’m appalled when I hear of someone being killed on our roads. But more often than not when the facts come out, we learn that alcohol and speed were involved, never a good mix and straight away breaking two of the laws of the land.

In a recent case one of those killed was too young to hold a drivers licence, it was in the early hours of the morning and speed and alcohol were involved.

If the person did hold a licence they should have been wearing a helmet, being under 24 and exceeding 40kph – but wasn’t.

So that’s four laws broken; hands up everybody who thinks that if there was a law in place requiring everybody to wear a helmet this accident might have been avoided.

The people involved in the accident should have been wearing helmets anyway, but weren’t. And how were those laws being enforced?

In addition, there is no evidence to suggest that had both people killed been wearing helmets, their deaths may have been avoided. Speed, alcohol and dangerous driving may have delivered the same tragic result.

It is a tragedy. But how does forcing people – again I reiterate, the overwhelming majority, who are content to toodle along at 40kph or less, in daylight, doing their shopping, going to church, dropping their children or mokopuna at school, getting to and from work – how does forcing them to buy and wear expensive helmets, prevent people from drinking and driving, at speed, at night, and killing themselves.

Putting a statute on the books and not having the will, ability or inclination to enforce it seems to me to be pointless.

Isn’t the problem here drinking and driving (sometimes without a licence) at speed, not whether or not you’re wearing a helmet? And why aren’t the authorities dealing with that?

In the last few days while thinking about this issue I have tried to gather some background information. Simple things like the number of vehicles registered in the Cook Islands – so far I’ve not been successful.

The most recent data I could find is contained in the Cook Islands Road Safety Strategy 2016-2020 (which never got implemented). In 2014 there were 16,297 registered motor vehicles in the Cook Islands. About 60 per cent (9,778) were motor bikes, the remainder cars and trucks.

No doubt that number will have risen in the past five years. So all up we’re probably looking at around 20,000 helmets – taking into account those riders who already have helmets and then the households with multiple bikes, riders and head sizes.

One of the country’s biggest retailers is currently negotiating with a factory in China to buy some crash helmets; the factory is temporarily closed due to the coronavirus but is expected to reopen shortly.

The helmets they are looking to buy will have DOT or EC certified approval which will meet our regulations. At the time of writing this, the price was not yet known.

In the past we have looked at helmets for sale locally and frankly have been surprised by how flimsy they are. There are some that seem to me would offer very little protection when falling off a motorbike travelling at speed, and the ones that are marginally more robust than the others, seem to start at about $80 each.

So for us the choice has been to forgo the opportunity to travel an extra 10kph faster and instead enjoy the freedom of dawdling along at up to 40kph with the wind in our hair.

As mentioned, earlier vehicle registrations shows that in 2014 there were approximately 10,000 motorbikes in the Cook Islands.

Working on the basis that each motorbike may require two helmets and given the cost of the last lot of helmets we looked at being $80, that makes the cost that Cook Islanders need to find to comply with any new law around $1.6m.

And all of this to cater for the average of 5 people a year who are killed on motorcycles in the Cook Islands.

I recall discussing this matter with a friend associated with the police when it last came up who offered the comment that, “just wearing a helmet isn’t going to save your life”, and he’s right.

So should the government proceed to make helmets complusory for everyone, apart from the questions I’ve raised about fixing the real problems, I wonder if they’ve thought it through any better than the last attempt to introduce helmets for all.

There is the cost, which appears to start at about $80 a helmet. Ok, so that covers the driver, then there’s the pillion passenger – another $80 if they’re an adult or teenager – but what about the little child you see travelling behind mama or mum.

Where do you find a helmet that fits them and what might that cost; and is it safe for young children to have a heavy helmet weighing down or flopping about on their tiny heads and necks.

If the helmets are to be of a high standard and worn properly, then they’re going to need several helmets as they grow and mature, all at a cost.

And remind me again of how many of these sorts of road users get into trouble and kill themselves on the road. How many of them are drinking and driving and speeding?

You might be beginning to see my dilemma.

When this matter was most recently raised again a few weeks back I couldn’t help feeling it was just a kneejerk reaction, and I haven’t seen anything to change my mind.

I can’t help feeling a bit resentful when I see, in the middle of the day, road blocks checking on bike riders who might be a couple of kilometres over the limit, and checking to see if you’re a tourist or a local and therefore should or don’t need to be wearing a helmet – as is the law.

And then being woken up around 1am by motorbike riders roaring past our place on their way from a night club or party and I wonder where the police are then?

It matters nought if those riders are wearing helmets or not as they roar past, holding loud and animated conversations; should they come to a sudden stop at those speeds the shock to their bodies, and the injuries they suffer at best will be grievous, and as has happened in recent weeks, could be fatal.

A quick glance at when these fatal crashes occur indicates that the majority of the accidents occur between the hours of 11pm to 2am and if Police were stopping drivers at these hours might we see fewer fatal motorbike accidents?

Drinking and driving and breaking the laws that already exist is the problem not whether or not you’re wearing a helmet.