In recent times, the Okada (commercial motorcycle) has come under heavy flak culminating in legislations restricting or prohibiting their operations in some Nigerian cities. Before now, the Okada was a ubiquitous feature of virtually every Nigerian city including Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory; FCT. This was probably because of its flexibility, low fare, low cost of purchase, and fuel efficiency. But the popularity and widespread acceptance of Okada on the basis of its advantages contrasts sharply with the dangers associated with this motorized two-wheeler.
Besides a close link between the Okada and an increase in crime rates in cities throughout Nigeria, particularly in the city centers, urban slums, and red light districts, studies have shown that Okadas like all motorcycles elsewhere, have a far higher rate of crippling and fatal accidents per unit distance than automobiles. A study conducted in the USA in 2004 showed that while about 15 cars out of 100,000 ended up in fatal crashes, the rate for private motorcycles was 69.3 per 100,000. There was no data on commercial motorcycles since it is not practiced in the US. However on the basis of common sense, one can conveniently say that the rate would be astronomically high considering the extent to which commercial motorcycling has contributed to the rapid growth in global motorcycle fleet and consequently to motorcycle journeys. Evidently, a 1998 study at the Obafemi Awolowo University Teaching Hospital Ile-Ife, showed that injuries to limb that occurred in 79.3 percent of patients who reported at the Emergency Ward of that hospital were as a result of Okada accidents.
The recommendation of Crash Helmets for motorcyclists all over the world is an idea that is as old as the motorcycle itself. In time the practice became so fashionable that virtually every motorcycle rider owned and used a crash helmet. Motorcycle manufacturers and marketers, in turn, advertised their products with models smartly dressed in full personal protective gear. Incidentally, the bulk of motorcycle riders then were responsible men and women; Teachers, Extension Workers, Community Development Officers, Security Personnel, Village Chiefs, etc. There was no Okada then.
The advent of Okada in Nigeria brought increased level of high-risk behaviour among the now colourful cast of riders. A study carried out in 1993 in Yola, Adamawa State, showed that about 88 percent of Okada riders in that city were aged between 18 and 30 years and only 47 percent of them received formal education of any form. That means that 53 percent of them were stark illiterates, and this study is representative of most cities in Nigeria where Okada business thrives.
The emergence of armies of untrained and unlicensed Okada riders has created a cause for serious concern among the officers and marshals of the Federal Road Safety Commission, FRSC. The fact that these riders literally rescue countless helpless commuters from the organized road traffic chaos incidental to the prevailing economic climate plagued by a dearth of taxi and bus services, hyper congestion, and the poor state of Nigerian roads is not a guarantee that appropriate road safety rules will not be enforced.
As a lead agency charged with the responsibility of overseeing Road Traffic Administration and Safety Management matters in Nigeria, and as a member of the African group of the International Road Safety Organisation; GPA-PRI, the FRSC is committed to its statutory functions as spelt out in part II of the FRSC Act Cap 141 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria; LFN 1990 as amended and today FRSC (Establishment Act), 2007. Provisions of this Enabling Act include educating drivers, motorists and other members of the public on the proper use of the highways. It also includes making regulations generally for carrying out the objectives of its Enabling Act.
Given the common incidence and serious consequences of motorcycle accidents, there had been surprisingly little or no serious measure taken against motorcyclists who refuse to use personal protective equipment such as crash helmets and reflective jackets as recommended by the FRSC.
This neglect of road safety rules by motorcyclists and subsequent levity on the part of past administrations of FRSC certainly provides a lead to the on-going nationwide crusade for the reformation of the Okada, embarked upon recently by Osita Chidoka; the current Corps Marshal of FRSC and President of the West African Road Safety Organisation; WARSO. The focal point of the campaign is the January 1 2009 deadline for all motorcyclists in Nigeria to procure and use FRSC approved crash helmets and other personal protective gear.
The primary concern of the Corps marshal alongside other officers and marshals of FRSC is the safety of the motorcyclists and their passengers. Most motorcycle accidents more often than not result in serious head injuries that in a majority of cases lead to fatalities. To quote a senior Consultant Neurosurgeon in Chennai, India; “In 24 years having personally managed, at least 6000 cases of head injuries, I can count on fingers of one hand the number of deaths among the groups of two-wheeler riders wearing helmets. This is in stark contradiction to the large number of deaths encountered amongst two-wheeler riders with unprotected skulls. Most of us have thick skulls but they are not thick enough.”
As earlier stated, the bulk of Okada riders are within the 18-30 years age bracket. It is also noteworthy that their customers are largely between 18 and 39 years of age. This being the most productive age group, these deaths and injuries are not only an enormous loss of productive human resource but also have serious implications for the health budget of the country. Even with advanced and intensive medical therapy and skilled neurosurgical procedures, not many lives can be saved. Even those that are saved, at times, become pathetically disabled imposing a great burden on the society in general and the family in particular.
Compared to cars, motorcycles are especially dangerous. They have rapid acceleration and high speeds. They are less stable than cars in emergency braking and less visible. Motorcyclists are more prone to crash injuries than car drivers because motorcycles are unenclosed, leaving the rider vulnerable to contact hard road surfaces. This is why the FRSC is emphasizing seriously on crash helmets. Helmets are the principal countermeasure for reducing crash-related head injuries; the leading cause of death among riders without helmets.
Helmets are designed to cushion and protect the riders’ heads from the severe impact of a crash. They cannot provide total protection against head injury or death, but they do reduce the incidence of both. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of USA estimates that helmets reduce the risk of death in a motorcycle crash by 29 percent, and the risk of fatal head injury by 40 percent. Helmets are even more effective in preventing brain injuries, which often require extensive treatment and may result in lifelong disability. Studies show that motorcycle riders without helmets are three times more likely to suffer traumatic brain injuries in a crash than helmeted riders.
The life of the Okada rider is as important to the nation as that of their customers. It is on this basis that the FRSC is intensifying its intervention strategies to sustain the surviving Okadas by standardizing their operations.