Helmet Habit Helps Save Lives

Jan 26, 2011

Children are exempt from the mandatory helmet law in Vietnam, which has one of the highest rates of traffic deaths in the world.

366 A grandfather ferries his grandchildren home. The Vietnam government established a helmet law a year ago with stiff finds for those not wearing them. Ironically, the fines do not apply to children under 16 so many go without a helmet. (Photo by Martha Overland)


In the year since Vietnam made it mandatory for motorcycle riders to wear helmets, more than 1,000 lives have been saved. However, on the anniversary of the law, the World Health Organization (WHO) said much more could be done to lower the death toll.

"Thanks to the introduction of mandatory helmet laws, there are more people alive today," Jean-Marc Olivé, WHO representative in Vietnam, said in a statement. "The alternative does not bear thinking about. There is no simpler message – helmets save lives."

Vietnam has one of the highest rates of traffic deaths in the world, most involving motorbikes. The year before the law went into effect on Dec. 15, 2007, there were nearly 13,000 road fatalities.

Since then, according to Vietnam's National Traffic Safety Committee, there were 1,400 fewer road deaths and 2,200 fewer serious injuries compared with the previous year. But WHO believes many more people could be saved.


No penalty for children

"Attention must now be turned to the vast numbers of Vietnamese children who do not wear helmets when they are passengers on a motorcycle," said Olivé.

While all passengers are required to wear helmets, only those age 16 and above can be fined for violating the law. Thus, only a small proportion of children wear them.

The police can’t give me a ticket so my kids don’t wear helmets.

"The police can't give me a ticket so my kids don't wear helmets," says Le Ngoc, a mother of two boys aged four and 10. Ngoc concedes she only wears a helmet because otherwise she can be fined $10. And until there is a penalty for children, she will not insist that her sons wear them.

In Vietnam, it took nine years of lobbying by agencies such as WHO, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and several foreign embassies for the law to be enacted. Indeed, the government introduced a helmet law six years ago but dropped it because of public resistance.

This time, the government and aid agencies embarked on an extensive campaign explaining the benefits of wearing head protection – although having a former Miss Vietnam promote the helmet habit probably did more good than adverts showing bloody trauma victims.

Even so, many remain unconvinced.

In Vietnam, wearing helmets – also known as "rice cookers" – has long been a fashion faux pas. Riders complain that helmets prevent them from hearing or could cause neck injuries.

Nguyen Thi Thu Thuy, an accountant, said wearing a helmet ruined her hair. But after an accident three months ago, she has changed her mind. "Before I just wore one to avoid the traffic police," said Thuy, "but now I wear one because I am alive today." However, many riders bend the rules by not fastening the helmets and leaving the straps hanging, or wearing construction caps and riding hats.

"I hate wearing a helmet so I only wear it because of the police," says Nguyen Quang Kien, a 21-year-old student. "So I don't often tie the straps because I can get away with it. I've never seen anyone fined for that."

To thwart riders such as Kien, last month the government responded by passing yet another decree, this one requiring all helmets be worn correctly. Rider and passengers can be fined $12 – a significant sum considering the minimum wage is less than $50 a month.


Safety standards

A survey conducted by the Vietnam Consumer Safety Association found that 80% of all helmets sold did not pass minimum safety tests.

On November 15, the government passed a new rule requiring that all helmets meet minimum safety standards.

The next challenge is to ensure children wear helmets. WHO is working with the government of Vietnam to impose fines on anyone riding with children who are bare-headed.


This post was originally published in IRIN in December 2008.