Editorial | Motorcycle helmets, the metaphor of Westmoreland
The Savanna-la-Mar Hospital in Westmoreland - a parish with around 145,000 residents and previously better known for sugar production - isn't one of those rated to cope with the large volume of critical traumas, such as serious head injuries from motorcycle crashes. But, increasingly, it is having to.
Little wonder, therefore, that the people who run the place are beginning to feel a little bit overwhelmed.
"When you have a medical ailment, we can fix it, patch you up and give you medicine," Erick Clarke, the chairman of the hospital board of governors, observed recently. "Unfortunately, when you fall off a motorcycle and hit your head, (spare) parts for the brain are not something we stock at the hospital. It is a very serious injury."
Indeed, the victims of motorcycle crashes account for a significant, and growing, proportion of the over 1,300 patients who annually end up at the small hospital's accident and emergency department. This is the upshot of Westmoreland, Jamaica's westernmost parish, becoming the epicentre of the island's deepening crisis of motorcycle crashes.
For instance, over the past five years fatalities from such crashes - inclusive of drivers and pillion - have jumped by approximately 125 per cent, hovering at around 120 for 2015 and 2016. Last year, in keeping with the recent trend, more than one-third of all motorcycle-related deaths were in Westmoreland, although the parish accounted for only 14 per cent of Jamaica's over 370 road fatalities.
Westmoreland, however, is merely a crisp metaphor for a broader problem that demands urgent attention before it metastasises out of control. There are no firm data on the number of motorcycles in Jamaica. The number, though, assumed to be a relatively small fraction of the 520,000 other registered vehicles. Yet, motorcycles are involved in 32 per cent of the island's road deaths.
Part of the problem is that historically, motorcycles have been poorly regulated. The regimes for their registration and for ensuring the competence of their riders have been weak. Hopefully, this will be remedied by the new Road Traffic Act, recently approved by Parliament.
But even when there are appropriate laws, such as for the mandatory wearing of helmets, they are laxly enforced. Yet, helmets have been shown in other countries to save lives. Their enforced use here would likely ease the stress on hospitals like Savanna-la-Mar.
For example, in the United States, where there are over 2,200 fatalities and 55,000 motorcycle injuries annually, riders are 16 times more likely to die in a crash than drivers of cars. They also have a 40 per cent greater chance of suffering fatal head injuries. But riders who wear helmets are 29 per cent less likely to be fatally injured than those who don't.
But as the Texas law firm, Hildebrand and Wilson, pointed in an article on the issue, in states without helmet uses, voluntary use declined to 50 per cent, while in those where they exist, 90 per cent of riders use them. "As a result, fatality rates related to helmet use are 10 times higher in states without helmet laws."
There is a clear message here: while Jamaica has a helmet law, it isn't being enforced. Should it be, there would be fewer fatalities for motorcycle crashes and less stress on hospitals like the one in Westmoreland.
Editor's Note: In yesterday's editorial, the chairman of the Hanover Municipal Corporation was refered to as Sheridan Williams. In fact, he is Sheridan Samuels. The error is regretted.