There is something in my psyche, and I dare say the psyche of millions of Indians, that squirms at the thought of wearing a seatbelt.
I wonder if it is because the seatbelt is seen, somewhere in the deepest corners of our minds, as a sign of bondage - a reminder of the long years being ruled by various empires, a reminder of the years of struggle for freedom - and maybe these reminders still evoke in many of us, a rebellious and impulsive act of defiance.
I can see you frown slightly and go back to reading the earlier paragraph once more. That's a bit too farfetched, I can almost hear you say.
Well, maybe it is indeed farfetched; and maybe the reasons are not entirely historical or so deep-rooted. Maybe, as in my case, it is just a case of claustrophobia, a feeling of being uncomfortable in small, tight spaces; a feeling of being bound, gagged and suffocated. But come on, a whole nation of claustrophobics? That seems even more farfetched.
What could it be then?
Could it be just a sense of naughty achievement at breaking the law? After all, motorists are required by law to wear seatbelts. Interestingly, the interpretation of the Indian law on seatbelts must rank quite high on lists that highlight the creative spark of the Indian public. So varied and numerous are these interpretations - for instance, the law requires only the driver of the car to wear the seatbelt, the passenger on his left is exempted! Sometimes the passenger on the back-left seat is required to wear one, but the one on the back-right seat is exempted! What about the poor bloke in the middle? Well, if he can manage to first find and then dig out the seatbelt from its hiding place in between the seats, then he is also required to wear it; if not, he is exempted! And by the way, the interpretations vary based on the time of the day and the month of the year! Finally, there are only five seatbelts, what do you do when a car has ten passengers? I tell you these laws were not meant to be implemented - so I will do as I please!
Now that does sound heroic and all. But try telling that to the traffic policeman who pulls you over next. Well, the creative Indian passenger has his ways around this also. First of all, it is very rare that someone actually gets caught for not wearing a seatbelt. You see, most of us have this inner sixth sense that forewarns us of the policeman just round the corner! And in case the internal warning system fails for some reason, we are also blessed with superhuman speed and agility that allows us to somehow get the belt around us, just in the nick of time. The trick here is to not buckle the belt, but just hold it around you in such a way that the policeman thinks you are wearing it, and you can drive past the poor guy with an invisible smirk on your face. Ahh.. the sense of victory in letting go of the belt, allowing it to recoil and snap back to its original position even as the car passes by the hapless policeman - priceless!
The things we do for our small pleasures in life.
There are probably many more reasons and excuses given for not wearing seatbelts - from the mundane to the philosophical - the belt is itchy; it is uncomfortable; my clothes get wrinkled and ruined; I am a good driver, I always drive slowly and safely; the law cannot force me to wear one.
Probably the only reason at least some people do wear a seatbelt is the existence of the law that requires one to do so. Unfortunately, there is such a great lack of awareness of the safety benefits of wearing seatbelts and of the difference between life and death that a fully fastened seatbelt can mean, when in an accident. There is also a similar lack of awareness of the benefits of using child seats in cars, a concept which is still alien in an Indian context. And the same goes for helmets for two-wheeler riders.
I am convinced that the single most important reason people shrug away their seatbelts and even question the very need to be belted down, is due to this lack of awareness - not realizing the wall of safety that the seatbelts provide us. This is not a habit that can be enforced by law - we will only embrace it when we truly understand the benefits. This is not something we can force anyone to do; it must be something that each one of us wants to do - for our own sakes and for the sake of those we love.
What we need is a change in the perception that the seatbelt, the child seat and the helmet are restrictions imposed on us. We need to understand that these are only prescriptions for our own safety. They are not meant to be an intrusion into our freedom. True freedom is never wholly unbounded; a restraining hand is almost always good.
I happened to see a video recently - a training video shown to new vehicle licensees in Singapore. It is a very graphic video, showing various kinds of accidents and especially, the injuries that can happen if one is not belted; it is very unpleasant and quite gory, but I think the video certainly has the desired effect. Once we see such a video, it becomes quite difficult to drive without wearing a seatbelt.
I wonder how many more serious accidents and deaths it will take for us to realise that wearing a seat belt is not really a matter of choice. The first step I guess is in each of us promising ourselves to always wear a seatbelt whenever in a car, whether as a driver or a passenger. As drivers of cars, we can probably go an extra step to ensure and insist that all our passengers are also belted up - and are as safe as they possibly can be.
Let us do our bit in keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe, while driving.