HCMC steps up enforcement of helmet law for children

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Less than a third of the city's children wear a helmet when being driven on motorbikes
  People taking their children to a primary school in Ho Chi Minh City. Parents mistakenly believe that helmets can be dangerous for children.

Tran Thi Thuy admits that she does not have her eight-year-old son wear a helmet when she takes the second-grader to and from Ho Chi Minh City's Le Dinh Chinh Primary School every day.

"It's just a little more than one kilometer," she says, adding that she does make her son wear a helmet on longer drives.

Asked whether she does so because a longer trip can be more dangerous, she says: "Honestly, a longer trip means there are more chances to be pulled over by the traffic police."

Thuy always wears a helmet for herself, on both short and long trips, because she thinks the helmet law is thoroughly enforced for adults.

This approach is not uncommon. Many parents admit they have children wear helmets less for their safety than for avoiding a traffic cop's attention. And once it appeared that the law requiring children to wear helmets was not being strictly enforced, parents went lax on compliance as well.

A new campaign hopes to change this approach. Launched this week in several HCMC districts, it beefs up traffic police patrols and activities to raise awareness among parents of the importance of their children having head protection on the road.

Vietnam's mandatory helmet law has seen almost 100 percent compliance among adults since it took effect in 2007, but the latest revision to the law in May 2010, which imposes fines of VND100,000 (US$5) to VND200,000 ($10) on people taking children six years of age and older on a motorbike without helmets, has not been nearly as effective.

The new campaign, launched by the HCMC Traffic Safety Committee and Traffic Police Division, is part of a three-year national program that seeks to reduce the high number of children who are killed or seriously injured on Vietnam's roads.

The program, Children Also Need a Helmet, was launched last November. It is a partnership between the National Traffic Safety Committee, the Road and Railway Traffic Police Department and the Ministry of Education and Training with the support of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the non-profit Asia Injury Prevention (AIP) Foundation.

Local media have reported that the campaign is seen as a trial step for issuing fines against parents/guardians of children not wearing helmets when driving a motorbike. Since the law took effect in 2010, the focus has been more on propaganda than strict enforcement, they said.

"Latest helmet wearing results from July 2012 show that whilst more than 77 percent of adult riders and passengers in HCMC are wearing helmets correctly, only 32 percent of children are helmeted" said Takeshi Kasai, the WHO representative to Vietnam.

Mirjam Sidik, AIP executive director, said motorcycles continue to be the family vehicle in Vietnam but having children wearing helmets is not a widespread practice.

"Helmets are simple, inexpensive, and highly effective against serious head injuries on the road, reducing the risk of death by 42 percent and injury by 69 percent in a crash," she said. "Yet, observed child helmet use rates, at only 32 percent on average, lag far behind those of adults."

The new campaign is expected to increase the proportion of children wearing helmets in HCMC to at least 60 percent by the end of this year.

According to the HCMC Traffic Police Division, there were 477 traffic accidents over the first eight months this year, killing 422 people. Among 40 deaths to injuries caused by not wearing a helmet were seven children. By August, there were 7,024 traffic accidents nationwide, killing 6,128 people and injuring 5,102.

In the new campaign, traffic police units in HCMC will commence enhanced helmet wearing enforcement operations in five districts, including districts 1, 9, 12, Binh Tan and Binh Thanh, and target school-aged children who ride as passengers on motorcycles.

Police officers will also distribute leaflets and flyers about helmet and motorcycle safety standards as well as vouchers for free helmets.

"To achieve maximum impact, we will be implementing enforcement near schools particularly during the times when parents are dropping off or picking up their children" said Nguyen Ngoc Tuong, deputy chairman of the HCMC Traffic Safety Committee.

Ignored dangers

Experts say many parents do not have children wear helmets because they have not seen police issue relevant fines and due to misinformation that head gear could harm the children.

Thu Hanh, an employee at a fitness center in District 5, said she bought a helmet for her seven-year-old daughter but the little one refused to wear it saying it is too heavy.

"Anyway, it is said that wearing a helmet could affect a child's neck. So I did not mind when she refused to wear it," Hanh said.

A traffic police officer with the Hang Xanh Traffic Police Station said many parents, who are afraid of being fined and of the negative impacts helmets could have on the children have bought light, unqualified helmets that cannot protect the head and pose higher risks because they can break into pieces with sharp edges and cause serious injuries in case of an accident.

According to WHO, the major reasons why children don't wear helmets is a lack of cooperation/agreement from children (34.1 percent) and that parents feel helmets are unnecessary (27.1 percent).

"Both of these reasons for not wearing a helmet are very amendable to enforcement and to education of both parents and children so we anticipate some very positive results on child helmet wearing associated with the new Ho Chi Minh City campaign launched," said Takeshi Kasai, WHO representative in Vietnam.

Kasai said millions children across Vietnam are not wearing helmets and therefore have no protection from serious or even fatal head injuries in the event of an crash.

"Compared to adults, the proportion of children wearing helmets is very low.  One of the major reasons for this highlights the importance and contribution of enforcement in achieving compliance with road safety legislation," he said.

Lieutenant Colonel Dinh Thanh Thao of the Hanoi Traffic Police Division said his agency has carried out many campaigns targeting motorbike drivers who do not wear helmets but none of them focused on children.

Another officer at the division, Nguyen Huu Tam, said it would be difficult to handle such violations (of children not wearing a helmet) because they were understaffed. "We are not even able to fully handle helmet law violations by adults," he said.

Colonel Vo Van Nhuan, chief of traffic police in HCMC, also spoke about lacking personnel. But, he said, the most important thing is to make parents understand the importance of their children wearing helmets.

Greig Craft, AIP Foundation president, said misinformation is the main cause for low child helmet use in Vietnam.

"Before developing this campaign, we carried out comprehensive research, working with Vietnam National University to determine why children aren't wearing helmets," he told Vietweek. "Our research showed that parents were the ultimate decision makers in choosing to buy a helmet for their child. In addition, we learned that many parents incorrectly believe the myth that helmets can harm their children."

According to a report released by the WHO in 2009, there is no evidence to indicate that helmets increase the risk of neck injury when compared to demonstrated life saving benefits that helmets provide in the event of a crash.

Craft said the campaign aims to reach parents from every direction, including TV, radio, billboards, social media, and community events with the message that having their children wear helmets is a safeguard for their families' future.

"We want them to understand the risk involved when they don't put a helmet on their child. The current habits are shameful and we (will) strive to make it socially unacceptable for parents not to put helmets on their children, always."

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