The official government news portal of Sri Lanka recently reported that a ban on full-face helmets will be re-imposed starting April 02. The report argues that the “face of the motorcyclist should remain open for easy identification.” The ban, which was initially set to be imposed on March 21, is expected to counter the presumed increase in the number of crimes committed by those wearing full-face helmets. On March 29th, Sri Lankan motorists protested in Colombo against the government’s decision to reinstate the full-face helmet ban. On surface, this issue seems to concern public safety, although one does not have to look too far to recognize the undergirding partisan politics that has fueled this debate.
In low and middle-income countries such as Sri Lanka, motorcyclists comprise a majority of road-traffic victims, and consequently, the majority of global road-traffic victims. Health and medical professionals view traffic injury control as a public health concern. As a result, they tend to advocate for increased public safety awareness and behavioral changes to create safer public transportation systems. A plethora of research also supports rather simple behavioral measures that can reduce road-traffic fatalities, including seatbelts and helmet usage. In developing countries such as India, enforcement of mandatory motorcycle helmet laws is seen as one of the most cost effective interventions available to increase public safety.
The burning question for us today in Sri Lanka isn’t whether motorcyclists should or should not wear helmets (we are lucky to have moved past that hurdle, for the most part!), but rather, what types of helmets give riders the most protection while minimizing the associated risks.
Motorcycle helmet designs have been changing over the past several years. Today there are at least two basic types of helmets in popular use: “full-face” and “jet” helmets. Both helmet types give good protection to the brain, but researchers argue that they provide different degrees of facial protection. Several recent studies published in medical journals (e.g., Journal of Maxillofacial and Oral Surgery, The Medical Journal of Australia) have indicated that “full-face helmets provide significantly greater protection against facial injury than do jet helmets.”
Furthermore, there is no empirical evidence to suggest that wearers of full-face helmets face higher risks of involvement in road traffic accidents. In fact, one study provided statistically significant evidence to the contrary– that wearers of full-face helmets have no greater risks of involvement in road traffic crashes than do the wearers of jet helmets. In fact, an overwhelmingly number of medical and health professionals have shown that the “use of full-face helmets should be encouraged and consideration should be given to the revision of helmet standards to require the provision of facial protection.”
If the banning of full-face helmets cannot be justified using health/medical frameworks—in fact, the evidence suggests that full-face helmets are far better!—how can one rationalize this impending ban? In the context of Sri Lanka, the ban seems to be rooted in the idea that the number of crimes committed by full-face helmet users has increased over the past year. In March, the Police media person at the time reported that “127 crimes were committed by those wearing full-face helmets in the past year  and 124 of these were related to robberies.”
The raw number of crimes says little to suggest a direct correlation between those who wear full-face helmets and those who have committed crimes wearing such head devices. Numerous other factors needs to be taken into consideration to justify the claim that perpetrators of crime are more likely to use a full-face helmet to aid their criminal activities. Also relevant are questions such as; Has the general crime rate gone up in Sri Lanka? What proportion of those crimes was committed by those wearing full-face helmets? How has that proportion changed over time? Is there a correlation between the type of crime, rate of crime, and crimes committed while wearing full-face helmets? Isn’t it also possible that 2014 was just an anomaly? What does the overall pattern of crime in Sri Lanka imply? Furthermore, is there enough evidence to suggest that a ban on full-face helmets would effectively reduce the crime rate? The critical need is for crime reduction strategies that do not compromise the health and safety of a large proportion of law-abiding Sri Lankan motorcyclists.
Based on how officials have rationalized the decision to ban full-face helmets (at least in public media and other public forums), this decision seems to be hasty, drawing a causal conclusion where there may be none. If there is data to show that such a relationship actually exists, then, at the minimum, citizens should be invited into this debate and allowed to voice their opinions–before turning this into a law.
In the broader scheme of things, the full-face helmet ban in Sri Lanka resonates with several worldwide debates on banning of various other face coverings; for instance, the full-veil ban imposed on Muslim women in France. At first, this might seem unrelated. However, the ways in which the French government rationalized this decision—as a potential security threat—is similar to the predominant official discourse in Sri Lanka at the moment. Interestingly though, the French did make exemptions where public health and wellbeing was at risk, including allowing people to wear full-face motorcycle helmets.