The case for a mandatory helmet law

The first ice-hockey player to wear a helmet was George Owen, when played for the Boston Bruins back in the 1928-29 season.

For the next 60 years, Owen was pretty much the only ice-hockey player to wear a helmet. Any other player who tried to wear one faced peer pressure, fan pressure and ridicule. It wasn’t until as late as 1978 that helmets became mandatory in the sport. At least eight NHL players have died due to on-ice injuries. Countless others have suffered facial lacerations and concussions that could have been avoided by the use of helmets.

Until it was made mandatory, hardly any motorcyclist in India wore a helmet. Even after the rule, no pillion rider wore a helmet until even that was made mandatory. I still see several motorists lament the mandatory helmet rule – their reasons can vary from considering it ‘uncool’ to fears that it accelerates their hair-loss. They consider the mandatory helmet rule as an infringement of their personal freedom. They argue that they ought to be able to decide whether to wear a helmet (or a seat-belt) on their own rather than the government mandating it.

It is an objective fact that wearing helmets saves lives on Indian roads. This ‘hard’ fact often clashes with the subjective beliefs people have for not wearing one. Given this conflict, there are two good reasons for enforcing a helmet rule.

Firstly, while it is true that the government is a custodian of our personal freedom, it is also a custodian of public welfare as a whole. We humans do what the people around us do. If wearing a helmet isn’t mandatory, the default behaviour is to not wear one. When a helmet rule is enforced, the default behaviour switches to wearing one.

Secondly, having such a rule in place liberates people from the choice of linking their personal beliefs and values worth to the act of wearing a helmet. Earlier, when a friend could ridicule you for choosing to wear a helmet, making them mandatory eliminates that choice along with the ridicule. Frustrated motorists are now likely to direct their rants towards the government, but in return, we are all benefited by having a much smaller number of fatal road accidents.

When it is a fact for people to behave a certain way, enforcing this behaviour by law liberates them from the subjective beliefs that may prevent them from doing so.

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