Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- Leniency in the application of strict penalties against motorcyclists who do not comply with the safety rules in Saudi Arabia leads to hundreds of death every year. In a statement to Asharq al Awsat, Major General Fahd al Bishr, the director-general of the Traffic Control Department (TCD), confirmed that motorcycle accidents throughout the kingdom amounted to 969 by the end of 2005.
Statistically, since the possibility of injury or death for motorcyclists as a result of crashes is 80 percent compared to 30 percent for motorists, it highlights the fact that there is a lack of education and awareness as to safety measures. This is furthered by the fact that the fine imposed on bikers who flout the rules is a modest one.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is set to double its efforts to promote the use of crash helmets as an effective means to reduce injuries and deaths resulting from motorcycle accidents in developing countries over the next two years by pressing governments to enforce strict laws that can raise an awareness of the importance of using crash helmets. Saudi observers believe there is an urgent need to focus on enforcing the law as soon as possible.
Captain Omar al Suwailim of the TCD confirms the existence “of a law under the traffic violations regulations that enforces wearing crash helmets that imposes a SR 100 fine on motorcyclists who do not abide by the rule.” The regulations, however, do not outline the safety guidelines for motorcycling. “This may be one reason,” he added, “that accounts for the fact that some bikers in Saudi Arabia, whether on roads or in entertainment parks, prefer to wear traditional dress while the international cycling safety requirements urge bikers to wear tough fabrics like leather and durable shoes and gloves, in addition to reflective clothes to make them more visible.”
Social researcher Dr. Abdul Ilah bin Saeed says that the issue was not given priority in application because, “cycling accidents do not pose a crisis in our society, bearing in mind that those who drive motorcycles in Saudi Arabia are a minority.” A conception that is shared by many, it may actually be inaccurate according to the TCD’s Director-General, Major al Bishr, who said that traffic accidents caused by motorcyclists have claimed more than 969 lives out of a total of 296,015 road accidents, which resulted in 5,982 deaths and 21,369 injuries in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, motorcycle accidents are reported to have killed 1.5 million worldwide and injured and disabled millions around the world.
According to representatives from the media center at the WHO’s Cairo regional office who confirmed to Asharq Alawsat that the organization’s emphasis to raise the awareness of the necessity of wearing crash helmets is due to the fact that head injuries are the main cause of death and disability in accidents, adding that such injuries require high costs because they need long-term medical care and rehabilitation. They affirmed that wearing helmets contributed to decreasing the risk of injuries sustained by motorcyclists by about 70 percent and prevented death by 40 percent.
Captain Salman al Salama, the director of Safety Department of the TCD believes it is critical to increase the use of safety helmets in Saudi Arabia today as he explained there has been a significant rise in motorcycles in the kingdom, though it varies from one province to another, adding that “in some regions, such as in central provinces, the use of motorcycles is limited to entertainment purposes while the matter is different when compared to western and southern provinces where motorcycles are also used as a means of transportation.” There has been a substantial rapid rise in motorcycle ownership over the last five years in Saudi Arabia.
Many countries have curbed the rates of fatal motorcycle accidents by enforcing strict laws to wear safety helmets. A report issued by the American Medical Association revealed that wearing helmets reduced deaths by 30 percent, and brain injury cases by 67 percent. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) pointed out that adherence to his rule between 1989 and 1998 accounted for saving $10 billion in the treatment of head and neck injuries.
These facts raise a pressing question: will imposing more severe penalties for not wearing safety helmets or raising the violation fine contribute to increasing the public awareness of the importance of wearing them? Saudi professional biker Amer al Khalidi, from Saudi Arabia’s Harley-Davidson Group, says there is a dire need for a comprehensive health awareness that stresses education about the safe practices for all activities, not just one activity. Moreover, education, according to Amer, should not be limited to individuals; rather it should include TCD staff members as well because some of them do not wear safety helmets themselves, which makes implementation more difficult. Commenting on whether there might be financial obstacles in obtaining a helmet at a reasonable price (prices range SR 750-1200), he said that “motorcycles are infamous for their lack of safety because they are light in weight without providing proper protection for motorcyclists, in addition to being difficult to notice by motorists. Based on these facts, it is necessary to comply safety precautions even if the cost is high – if it is to prevent fatalities and disabilities.”