Why helmets are a must, and how to know the right one

What you need to know:

Wearing a helmet reduces your risk of a serious brain injury and death because during a fall or collision, most of the impact energy is absorbed by the helmet, rather than your head and brain

Only one in 20 motorcyclist passengers in Kampala own and regularly use helmets. This is according to a market analysis released three weeks ago by Soland Associated Consults Limited in collaboration with Tom Courtright, a researcher and consultant in sustainable urbanism and transportation in the East African region.

The analysis was aimed at understanding the current state of helmet distribution and usage in Kampala. According to the results, the main reasons for not wearing helmets were discomfort, heat and a belief among passengers that it is not necessary to wear a helmet. 

Carried out from November 2021 to January 2022, the study also established that ownership of helmets among boda riders stands at 91.4 percent. However, despite the high percentage of ownership, 14 percent of motorcyclists were observed to be carrying, instead of wearing their helmets, and a further 17 percent did not have their helmets. Unfortunately, helmet ownership among passengers remains at only 5.8 percent.

The need for safety

According to the 2021 annual crime and road safety report, 4,159 road crashes were recorded countrywide. Of these, 1,390 involved motorcycle riders while 528 were passengers on motorcycles. This translates to approximately four people dying from boda boda crashes per day, and approximately 116 every month.                             

Faridah Nampiima, the spokesperson of the Traffic Directorate, says for every five crashes, four involve motorcyclists and their passengers. In October, Nampiima says, 257 people died in road crashes and among these, many were boda bodas accidents.

“When you wear a helmet, your chances of surviving death as a result of head injuries increase. Stop looking at helmets as gear that causes you discomfort but as a life saving device that must be worn every time you are using a motorcycle,” Nampiima says.

In Uganda, trauma is the fifth highest cause of health burden and road crashes account for 48 percent of all injuries. While the cost of medical care can vary, serious crashes usually cost millions of shillings.

According to the East and Central African Journal of Surgery, the Impact of boda boda motor crashes on the budget for clinical services at Mulago National Referral Hospital 2016, road Traffic Crashes (RTCs) were the leading cause of trauma with boda bodas accidents accounting for 41 percent of all trauma patients.

The average duration of stay was 8.3 days, while the average cost of taking care of  a boda boda patient was determined at Shs700,359 per day, or the equivalent of US$369 (about Shs1.3m), yet a standard quality helmet only costs approximately Shs100,000. The journal adds that boda boda injuries consumed 62.5 percent of the budget allocation for the directorate of surgery.


Types of helmets

The most common types of motorcycle helmets in Uganda are the half face, full face, modular, and half shell. Full face helmets are the safest category of motorcycle and passenger helmet.

According to an analysis commissioned by Safe Way Right Way Uganda, full face helmets, including the subcategories of modular, road, and off-road, provide the highest amount of safety. Yet in Kampala, half face helmets are five times more common than full face helmets and remain the favourite among riders. Modular helmets, also known as flip-up helmets, are liked for their ability to flip up the chin bar, and have largely been popularised by companies such as SafeBoda.

Cost

The cost of a helmet of recommended standard and quality for a regular rider or passenger ranges between Shs70,000 to Shs90,000m but can cost as much as Shs150,000, depending on the type you buy.

When to replace

Helmets expire when they have either suffered a serious defect such as being cracked, miss an inner shell, or have no strap, or after five years of use; whichever comes first. This is because glue and other components can degrade over time. The analysis found that approximately 86 percent of helmets on the road in Kampala are barely two years old, meaning a bigger number of helmets are not making it to their expiry date.

Defects

Helmet defects were found to be quite common in Kampala. The most common defects were found to be cracks, missing straps, missing inner shells, and missing or unusable visors. All these have different impacts of usage. Cracked helmets, for instance, are designed to take a single major impact and will not protect one in case of a crash. Therefore, they should be discarded after a serious crack forms.

Lacking an inner shell, which is meant to cushion the head in case of impact, also significantly diminishes the usefulness of a helmet in case of a crash. Missing straps reduce the usefulness of helmets by reducing the likelihood that the helmet will still be protecting your head during impact. Missing or unusable visors, on the other hand, can in fact increase the likelihood of crashes. Taken together, around half of the helmets on the road in Kampala have defects that make them unfit for use.

Distribution

Between 2018 and 2021, approximately 2,858,170 helmets were imported into the country. A significant increase was observed from 2019 to 2020 with an increase from 658,722 to 841,597 respectively. However, the numbers imported reduced to 751,923 in 2021, possibly due to the Covid-19 lockdown.

How does a helmet protect you?

A helmet aims to decrease the risk of serious head and brain injury by reducing the impact of a force or collision to the head. A helmet works in three ways:

1. It prevents direct contact between the skull and the impacting object by acting as a mechanical barrier between the head and the object.

2. It spreads the forces of the impact over a greater surface area so that they are not concentrated on a particular area of the skull.

3. It absorbs the impact energy and reduces the magnitude of the forces transmitted to the skull and brain.

A good quality helmet is made with expanded polystyrene (EPS) lining that absorbs the impact to the head in a crash, decreasing the severity of serious head or brain injury. The lining is covered with a hard outer shell that cushions the head and reduces the extent of trauma. For maximum protection, the helmet must fit snug on the head and have strong straps to ensure the helmet will stay on in the event of a crash.

Low quality helmets are often made with cheap materials that break easily and do not protect the brain. These helmets typically contain poor quality foam that is soft and it will not withstand an impact. A low quality helmet may also use straps that break easily and not fit well, aspects that can contribute to a higher severity of injuries in a crash.


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