The helmet law

Over the past week, thousands of motorcycle riders throughout the country descended on the offices of the Department of Trade and Industry seeking a small sticker for their helmets. Like recruits for a ragtag army waiting to have their weapons inspected before marching to war, they waited for harried DTI personnel to paste an ICC sticker on their helmets attesting to their worthiness.

These commuters on two wheels had taken time off from work hoping to get the sticker before Aug. 1, after which the DTI would begin charging P300 for the inspection. Motorcycle riders have been warned that starting Jan. 1 next year, they will be stopped and fined for not wearing ICC-approved helmets.

What, in heaven’s name, is ICC? It means “Import Commodity Clearance”—a document normally issued by the DTI’s Bureau of Product Standards to manufacturers and importers certifying that their products meet the standard specifications and tests for quality and safety. The ICC seal may be found on most appliances, Christmas lights, children’s toys, etc.—proof that the product passed DTI inspection. We are advised to look for this seal when we shop, in much the same way we are reminded to search packaged food and health products for the seal of approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

The ICC, clearly, is a requirement imposed on producers, importers and distributors, and not on consumers. But Republic Act 10054, or the Motorcycle Helmet Act, signed on March 23, 2010, takes the further step of placing the responsibility for securing an ICC for protective helmets equally on the consumer. Sec. 7 of the law says: “(a) Any person caught not wearing the standard protective motorcycle helmet in violation of this Act shall be punished with 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.”

The penalty for noncompliance—to be imposed not just on riders without helmets but, as severely, on users of non-ICC compliant helmets—is akin to punishing consumers who buy healing concoctions from Chinatown that have not been approved by the FDA. But, to be fair, the rest of the helmet law is good. Its principal objective is to make the wearing of protective helmets mandatory for all motorcycle riders. The problem is in the implementation. What kind of helmet will satisfy the law?

As a rider myself, I am amazed by the variety of headgear that the almost one million motorbike riders in Metro Manila wear. The tin caps they wear loosely on their heads may as well not be there; these offer as much protection against concussions as a soft baseball cap. I am sure it was for them that the provision for an ICC-compliant helmet was inserted in the law. Yet it is so typical of our laws that the many are made to suffer for the recalcitrance of a few.  If our officials had been more conscientious in ensuring that all products brought into the country met minimum standards, we would not be in this situation.

The ICC sticker requirement may be the simplest way of ensuring compliance with the intentions of the law, but it will not be long before fake versions of the sticker appear in the underground market. From a distance, it would be impossible for a law enforcer to check the authenticity of that tiny sticker on the helmet of a moving rider. But, using pure common sense, he may be able to tell whether a helmet offers reasonable protection for the head.

Moreover, I have doubts about the thoroughness with which the testing and inspection of all helmets currently in use can be conducted, leaving aside the wisdom and the practicality of doing so. This requirement not only gives additional work to the DTI personnel for which they may not be suited. It also imposes a new and time-consuming burden on a motoring public that is already reeling from the myriad requirements appended to the renewal of a driver’s license (medical examination and drug testing) and the registration of a vehicle (securing an emission test clearance).

If the end goal is to reduce the number of motorcycle injuries and deaths on our streets, the Land Transportation Office can do a lot to achieve this by making the issuance of motorcycle driving licenses much tougher than it is today. Practical and theoretical tests of driving skills and knowledge need to be strictly conducted. Possession of a mere driver’s license for 4-wheeled vehicles should not be taken as a sufficient qualification for motorcycle driving. Motor bikers who habitually carry more than one back rider on their bikes, particularly unprotected children, must be stopped and prevented from proceeding.

Interestingly, RA 10054 excuses tricycle drivers and their passengers from the helmet requirement. One might justify this by pointing to the relative stability of a 3-wheel vehicle. But I dare say that on a road like Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City as on provincial highways, where tricycles are allowed to operate, the risks to the driver and his passengers are greater than those for a single motor biker.

I don’t mind lining up for an ICC sticker if I have to, but I dread the idea of being flagged by an enforcer who just wants to check my sticker. Bikers like me who do weekend riding for leisure choose our helmets with the same care we pick our motor bikes. If we fall once, and the helmet hits the ground, we are obliged not to use it again. In tropical heat, we dress up in fully padded pants, gloves, and jackets, in anticipation of a fall. On a big bike or a small one, the dangers are the same. A helmet ultimately will not protect a rider as much as responsible riding does.

* * *