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Nigerians find inventive ways around helmet laws

Passengers reluctantly don safety headgear when riding motorcycle taxis.

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.