For the past nine years, Raghvendra Singh has been driving across India wearing a crash helmet and handing out the protective gear to two-wheeler riders, often startling passers-by and at times being ridiculed.
Mr Singh, 37, from Greater Noida, a satellite city outside the capital Delhi, gives the helmets to riders who do not use them in a country notorious for traffic offences, deadly roads and the worst record for road accidents in the world.
He keeps helmets in his car, organises special camps in schools and colleges, gives them out as birthday presents, meets people at bustling markets and even stands at traffic signals, donating the headgear to those breaking the rules while riding a motorcycle.
For motorcycle riders, wearing a helmet is mandatory by law but this is widely ignored across India.
Mr Singh has so far distributed more than 56,000 helmets to riders across the country and believes he has saved 30 lives in the past decade.
For his deeds, the Samaritan has earned the nickname ‘helmet man of India’.
“My only aim is to make every Indian a smart road user,” Mr Singh told The National.
“I want everyone to inculcate the habit of wearing a helmet and save their lives.”
The father of one was an aspiring law student when the death of his best friend and roommate Krishan Kumar Thakur in an accident on a motorway in 2014 turned his life “upside-down”.
Following months of grief and shock, Mr Singh said he mustered the courage to donate his personal belongings, including books to needy students, when the idea of distributing helmets to riders hit him.
“He was just 24 years old. He was riding a motorcycle when a car hit him. He was not wearing a helmet and sustained fatal head injuries. His family spent 1.8 million rupees but couldn’t save him.”
“His death jolted me like I was being electrocuted every day. I could not stop thinking 'what if he had worn a helmet?' It was then that I realised how many people die every year in such accidents,” Mr Singh said.
His unusual endeavour has spread awareness but he often draws ridicule from people who mock him for wasting his money or question his intentions. But in response, Mr Singh patiently narrates his friend’s story to convince people to ride safely to avoid the same fate.
Each year in India, thousands of people die in road accidents due negligent driving, faulty road design, lax traffic laws and corruption, making road accidents one of the biggest causes of unnatural death in the country.
More than 412,000 road accidents were reported in India in 2021, latest government figures show.
The negligence of not wearing a helmet resulted in the deaths of more than 52,000 people and about 100,000 were injured, the data said.
While the country has strict traffic and safety rules, people rarely comply with them.
It is a common sight to see more than two people on a motorbike or a scooter — without helmets.
Some can be seen casually carrying them on their arms while riding the vehicle and many of those who wear them do so in fear of paying hefty fines to traffic police.
Their reasons for not wearing a helmet vary from spoiling their hairstyle, becoming sweaty in hot weather and impaired hearing from having covered ears.
Leading helmet manufacturer Studds Accessories Ltd in 2020 estimated that about 80 million people who ride motorcycles in the country required helmets, as usage was only 60 per cent of 210 million registered two-wheelers.
Mr Singh blames a lack of awareness and casual attitudes towards safety for reluctance to wear a helmet.
“The biggest challenge is that there is no awareness,” he said. “Wearing a helmet should be made a habit from childhood. Parents should make sure that kids wear a helmet while on a two-wheeler so it will become a habit for them and continue it when they become adults.”
His initiative has saved many lives but the charity has not come easy.
Mr Singh has spent more than 30 million rupees ($365,540) buying helmets, organising safety camps and travelling to far-flung places.
He has even used his savings, mortgaged his wife’s jewellery worth 1.5 million rupees and is now contemplating shifting his son from an affluent school to one run by the government.
“I had to sell my house, my wife’s jewellery but I am not going to stop. This is for my friend whom I couldn’t save but I can save millions of lives.
“People still think I am mad. They laugh at me if I drive the car wearing a helmet. Some even ask if I have extra money to splurge but there are also many who have thanked me for saving their lives,” he said.
“People have called me after a helmet I gave them saved their life at the time of an accident. This keeps me motivated. As long as I live, I want to dedicate my life to this cause.”