Nigerians find inventive ways around helmet laws

LAGOS, Nigeria — Black magic. Lice. Skin disease. Or just a ruined hair-do. These are complaints made by passengers of Nigeria's motorcycle taxis against a new law forcing them to wear helmets.

The traffic-beating motorcycle taxis — known as ‘okada’ after a defunct Nigerian airline — have mushroomed in recent years as Nigeria's roads have become increasingly clogged by traffic. Fatalities for riders of the rickety, small motorcycles have risen, too. Since Jan. 1, drivers and their passengers are required by law to wear a helmet in a bid to reduce the rising number of Nigerian road deaths. But some passengers are rebelling against donning the headgear provided by the okada drivers.

“The problem is they are shared. You don’t know who has been wearing the helmet before you,” said Gladys Emmanuel, 45, who regularly travels around Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital,  atop one of the city’s thousands of okadas.

Emmanuel, like many other women, carries a handkerchief or plastic bag with her that she puts over her elaborate hair weaves to protect them from any filth, old hair pomade or lice that might have been left on the helmet by a previous passenger.

Others worry that the helmet might carry a curse, or ‘juju’. “They think it will make them invisible or they will be robbed,” Emmanuel said.

Much more likely, though, is the danger of an accident. Largely unregulated, and often deadly, okadas whiz commuters through Lagos traffic jams — known as ‘go-slows’ — for an average fare of around 50 cents. 

Okadas first came into popularity at the end of the military rule in 1999. Nigerians quipped that the speedy motorbikes gave poor commuters a thrill akin to the sensation of flight, hence the airline nickname. Under successive, and less repressive, civilian governments the popularity of okadas grew. Today tens of thousands of young men make a few dollars a day as okada drivers on their cheap imported Chinese motocycles.

Swarms of okadas weave and buzz through the traffic and pollution-choked streets of Lagos, a city with 15 million people, according to estimates. Many vehicles on Lagos roads have no brakes or headlights. Few drivers have ever passed a driving test and driving the wrong way up a highway is widely considered a legitimate shortcut. Not surprisingly, road fatalities are high. Many of the victims are okada riders and some of Lagos's public hospitals even have wards dedicated to okada injuries.

But, in this latest bid to improve safety, the onus for provision of the helmet falls on the okada driver, not the passenger. Okada drivers are generally poor, illiterate young men who often rent their bike for a daily fee. The purchase of a helmet and a second one for their customers is proving a hefty burden for many, some of whom are coming up with ingenious cheaper alternatives.

 

Plastic construction helmets, old horse riding hats and even steel colanders have all been used by Lagos okada drivers to appear to be abiding by the legislation. In the northern Nigerian city of Kano, angry riders put dried fruit and calabashes on their head to protest against the new law.

Friday Vivian, 30, drives his okada around Lagos. He has a smart silver helmet decorated with red and orange flames that he’s especially proud of. It cost him $50 — more than he makes in an average week. He couldn’t afford a second, so he’s using a construction helmet given to him by a friend.

“This one is from Julius Berger,” Vivian said, pointing to the label of a major Nigerian construction firm inside the orange plastic hat. “I put black tape on the outside to hide the color and to make it look tough.”

But not all his potential customers have been fooled by this subterfuge, and more than a few have refused to take his okada, opting for a competitor with a superior helmet option. As soon as he can afford to, Vivian is going to invest in a better model.

Other okada drivers have lost several days earnings or paid substantial fines. Thousands of okada drivers that flouted the regulations in the first weeks of the year had their vehicles impounded. Others say they’ve paid fines of as much as $25.

Some regular okada users who have enough money to spare, like electrical engineer Aderemi Bayo, have taken matters into their own hands. “If I want to pick okada, I use my own helmet which I carry in a special bag,” he said.

While most okada passengers in Lagos are generally supportive of the legislation, sensing that, although not ideal, the helmets are a first step in the right direction, others think it’s just another passing whim. In recent years, Lagos State tried to enforce a law that motorists caught driving on the wrong side of the street had to provide psychological exams to show they were not crazy. But the law is rarely implemented.

“Here in Nigeria, after a while people will forget. It will be dumped – that is how it is with new laws,” said Stella, a public relations officer who would not give her last name. “So the best thing is to improve the infrastructure, improve the roads and give us buses and metros — like they have in other big cities in the world. Then we would not need okada.”

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