Todd Hartley: I’m with Stupid |

Todd Hartley: I’m with Stupid

Todd Hartley
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Every so often, in researching this column, I come across a headline so bizarre that I know immediately that it will be my subject without even reading the story. Such was the case Tuesday when I saw the following on the BBC News website: “Nigerian motorcyclists wear pumpkins to evade helmet law.”

Apparently, there’s a new law in Nigeria requiring motorcycle drivers and passengers to wear helmets, which doesn’t sit too well with the operators of Nigeria’s thousands of motorcycle taxis. Helmets, which can cost up to $29, are a big expense in such a poor country, especially when you have to buy two of them.

The helmet requirement has led to protests throughout Nigeria, and in the northern city of Kano several riders have been caught wearing calabashes on their heads in an effort to circumvent the law. (Calabashes are dried pumpkin shells normally used to carry liquids.)

Despite the humor inherent in people using pumpkins as helmets, officials in Kano are not amused and are taking a hard line with those caught violating the law.

“We are impounding their bikes and want to take them to court so they can explain why they think wearing a calabash is good enough for their safety,” said Kano Federal Safety Commission commander Yusuf Garba.

In many cases, however, the calabashes are less about safety than they are about simple economics and, well, voodoo, I guess. Motorcycle taxi operators say that their passengers often steal the helmets when they get where they’re going, and many of the passengers are terrified that the motorcyclists will use the helmets to cast spells on them and make them easy to rob.

According to one passenger interviewed by the BBC, “Some people can put juju inside the helmets, and when they are worn the victim can either lose consciousness or be struck dumb.” The story neglected to mention whether pumpkins are all juju-free or if it’s possible to put a hex on them as well.

So now the motorcycle taxi drivers find themselves in a bit of a tough spot. If they somehow come up with enough money and buy helmets, they run the risk of scaring off potential clients worried about bad juju, and if they do pick up a fare, they run the risk of having a helmet stolen.

As one who believes that any ordinance protecting you from yourself is unnecessary, it would be easy for me to say that the simple answer would be to eliminate the new law and allow the motorcyclists and their passengers to take their chances. But that would overlook a very disturbing statistic cited by road safety authorities in Nigeria. According to these experts, almost every collision in Nigeria’s cities involves a motorcycle taxi.

So what has the government done prior to passing the law to make the streets of Nigeria safer, you ask? Tougher licensing standards? Limits on the number of motorcycle taxis? Actually, no. According to the BBC story, local government officials have been handing out free motorcycles to unemployed young men to give the men, most of whom are untrained and illiterate, a way of making a living.

This sort of governmental response to a problem of its own creation seems, on the surface, very Third World, but in truth the only thing Third World about it is the doling out of free motorcycles.

But wait, you say, what about the pumpkins on the heads? Surely that’s the sort of thing you’d never see in a developed country. OK, I’ll grant you that you’d probably never see an American motorcyclist using a pumpkin as a helmet. Look in the right place at the right time, however, and you could see pumpkins on hundreds of American heads.

I’m referring to Boulder’s Naked Pumpkin Run, a Halloween tradition that recently celebrated its 10th anniversary and proves that when it comes to pointless government intervention, Nigeria’s got nothing on us.

This year 12 runners, wearing nothing but pumpkins on their heads, were cited for indecent exposure, which could require them to register as sex offenders and at the very least ensures they’ll spend a lot of time and money going through the interminable court process such a citation demands.

Please. Streaking is just good clean American fun, not a sex offense. If a naked pumpkin runner can’t elude the police, slap them with a fine and be done with it. In Nigeria, at least government ineptitude is done with safety and good intentions in mind, not malice and stupidity as it is in Boulder.

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