Two schoolgirls without helmets ride pillion on a motorbike in Hanoi
Vietnamese police have started Monday to fine parents who flout regulations on children wearing helmets. I am absolutely certain it will deliver results, both in behavior change and lives saved.
Helmets have proven to reduce the risk of death by 42 percent and of severe head injury by 69 percent among motorcycle drivers and passengers, including children, in the event of a crash. As more children wear helmets, fewer lives will be lost.
We have already seen a significant increase in the number of helmets on the heads of children. Traffic police piloted enhanced enforcement operations, combined with a communications campaign, in Ho Chi Minh City from September to December of last year.
Enforcement targeted school-aged children who ride as passengers on motorcycles without helmets. Results show that helmet use among child motorcycle passengers increased from 22 to 50 percent. Enforcement operations have expanded to Hanoi and Da Nang in 2013. I have no doubt that we will soon see similar success in those cities.
Whether parents will easily accept this enforcement is a different matter. We must remember that national infant vaccination programs in Vietnam took time to be accepted. Yet today, Vietnam is a recognized world leader in vaccinating its young. There will be challenges to achieve this new "helmet vaccination" program as well, but when the positive outcomes are realized, public resistance will fade.
The intent of Decree 34 was to close a loophole in the original helmet law, Resolution 32, whereby drivers had no obligation and faced no penalty for transporting children without helmets.
The age of six was determined based upon the assumption that it is the age when most children begin attending school. I believe almost everyone, even government officials, would agree now that this was not well thought out, for the very reason that observers raise: Parents have lamented that it would be very much of a nuisance to them to prove that their kids are under six years old, implying that many of them might as well bring along the birth certificates of their kids. The police might also blame this for their reluctance to pull over the parents.
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The solution is to make the helmet mandate universal. Because who could possibly believe that a four or five-year-old head would not require the same protection as a six-year-old head? What rational person would drop a child onto the road on its head from one and a half meters (the average height that human head falls from a bicycle or motorbike) at any age? The only logical and correct course of action is to modify the regulation to say that anyone on a motorbike - regardless of age - must wear a certified helmet.
The most important issue is that parents, society, and government have a moral and ethical responsibility to protect children. This is the same duty that has compelled society to regulate medicines, baby food, and even toys, among others. This is the same duty that compels Vietnam to ban substandard helmets and eliminate them from the market. Nothing less is acceptable.
Hopefully, as parents begin to understand helmets are essential and lifesaving, they will quickly accept that it is imperative to use a properly manufactured and certified product. It is simply the right thing to do.
The hurdles we are experiencing are challenging, but we must remember that this public health crisis, this "road war", is killing children, destroying families, causing financial havoc, and creating healthcare gridlock throughout the nation.
Vietnamese parents are loving, caring, and concerned about the welfare of their children. As parents learn of the extreme peril to which they are subjecting their children by not insisting that they wear quality helmets, they will quickly change their behavior. When they realize that putting a substandard helmet on a child's head is no different than feeding an infant counterfeit baby formula or giving their child fake medicine, then I am convinced that they will not complain about "inconvenience" anymore. This can only happen with more education and accurate information, combined with strict enforcement by the police.
In 2007, there were a multitude of concerns about the helmet law and opinions about why it would "never work" in Vietnam. It was therefore an unbelievable sight when, on December 15, 2007, there was 100 percent compliance among all motorcycle drivers and passengers, including children. Even more impressive was the 12 percent reduction in fatalities and the 24 percent reduction in injuries, including traumatic brain damage, recorded in 2008, one year after the helmet law was enacted.
This success is directly attributable to strict enforcement of the national law. Fewer than three percent of motorcyclists nationwide wore helmets at the beginning of 2007, yet public awareness campaigns and widespread education raised helmet wearing to approximately 45 percent by mid-2007. The combination of mass education and enforcement pushed helmet wearing compliance to 100 percent just six months later.
There is no reason we cannot do the same now with respect to child and counterfeit helmets. To see 11,000 deaths and more than 36,000 serious injuries in this country every year is simply unacceptable when an inexpensive, widely available "vaccine" exists (the helmet).
Hay doi mu bao hiem cho con! [Wear the helmets for your child!]
* The writer is president and founder of the Asian Injury Prevention Foundation. He received the Vietnam Friendship Medal for his contributions to improving national road safety and the landmark helmet law from the then President Nguyen Minh Triet in 2011.
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