ASUNCION – A refusal to wear helmets and failure to enforce safety laws have proved to be a deadly combination in Paraguay, where motorcycle deaths have skyrocketed over the past 10 years.
Whereas a decade ago roughly a score of people died per year in motorcycle accidents in that South American country, the number of those fatalities has now risen to around 800 annually, Dr. Anibal Filartiga, director of the Trauma Hospital in Asuncion, told EFE.
Filartiga, who regularly treats victims with open cranial fractures, has become one of the most vociferous opponents of imprudent motorcycle driving and lax law enforcement.
A law on the books clearly states that helmets and reflective vests are mandatory for motorcycle occupants, but it is regularly flouted in practice.
On any street in Paraguay’s capital or the main national highway people get away with riding motorcycles without a helmet, protective vest, a working headlight or registration and even with carrying more than one passenger.
“People are irresponsible. Their level of awareness is low to begin with. Secondly, if no message is sent and the authorities aren’t respected, everyone does what he pleases and thinks he has the right to do. Since the guy next to me does it, why shouldn’t I?” Filartiga said.
The physician said authorities had tried to downplay the problem, but that people who neglect to use helmets and are seriously hurt constantly arrive at the Trauma Hospital, Asuncion’s main public emergency hospital, where roughly 75 percent of the patients are there because of motorcycle accidents.
The cost of treating these individuals uses up three-fourths of his hospital’s $97 million annual budget, he said.
The situation has improved in Asuncion, where 40 percent of motorcycle users wear a helmet, according to Filartiga, who said that when he arrived at his post five years ago that figure was just 14 percent.
“But in parts of the interior it’s as if they’d never heard that something called a helmet even existed,” the physician lamented.