Compulsory helmet law should apply irrespective of age, health experts say
A boy sleeps without wearing a helmet as his mother rides her bike in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
Horns blaring incessantly, a motorcyclist without a helmet snakes through a crowded street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
His violation of traffic laws does not stop there.
He is proceeding in the wrong way on a one-way street and has a child sitting in the front, who is also without a helmet. The motorbike weaves through cars that are also violating the law by entering a lane where they are not allowed.
This picture of traffic chaos and widespread violations are only bound to increase in the days ahead of Tet, Vietnam's Lunar New Year festival and biggest holiday, and many people are concerned about the safety of children in particular.
"Children are among the most vulnerable to traumatic brain injuries from road traffic crashes, due mainly to the fact that the majority of [them] do not wear helmets on motorbikes," said Greig Craft, president of the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation (AIPF), a US non-profit organization that seeks to reduce traffic crash injuries and fatalities in developing countries through public education campaigns.
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 last May, 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 had the same result.
"Estimates suggest that only 30 percent of children wear helmets which means that millions of children who travel with their parents on a daily basis are doing so without helmets," said Jonathon Passmore, technical officer for road safety and injury prevention with the World Health Organization (WHO) Vietnam.
Luong Huu Khanh Street in HCMC's District 1, where the Ket Doan primary school is located, sees heavy traffic congestion as parents gather to pick up their children at 4:30 p.m. every day.
On Tuesday (January 25), the last day the pupils attend school before the Tet vacation, Thanh Nien Weekly saw just one in 10 parents had brought a helmet for their children aged six to 10.
"I'm aware of the extension of the helmet law. But since no policeman has bothered to pull me over [because of my child not wearing the helmet], I've ignored it so far," said Nguyen Thi Cuc, a 42-year-old mother of a second-grader at the school.
The most recent revision of the helmet law has proven difficult to enforce since the burden of proving a child is over six years old falls on the police officer, said Craft.
A policeman in District 3 who requested anonymity confirmed Craft's worries. "If children of all ages were required to wear a helmet when they travel on motorbikes, enforcement would be a lot easier," he said.
But legal loopholes and weak enforcement are not the only problems.
"The weight of the helmet could cause neck or throat injuries to my son," said Nguyen Thi Hong Nhung, a 47-year-old mother in Tan Binh District. "He's only five years old, too little to wear a helmet."
Nhung's concern has been echoed by many other parents since the helmet law became effective in 2007. But health experts dismiss such concerns.
"There is no evidence at all to suggest that wearing a helmet places any excessive weight on the neck of the child, making them more prone to neck injury," said Passmore.
"On the contrary there is abundant information that demonstrates that correctly wearing a high quality helmet is the single most effective mechanism to prevent head injury in the event of a crash."
"Clearly myths such as these will need to be addressed in order to increase the prevalence of helmets among Vietnamese children," said a report on child injury prevention jointly released last year by UNICEF and the Vietnamese government.
Craft said that the AIPF has helmet models for both children and infants. "We are helping other helmet companies produce and source child helmets," he added.
"It is dangerous and irresponsible for any parent to put their child on a motorbike without a helmet... Most of the world is shocked that Vietnamese parents allow this. I am sorry to say so, but it is true."
According to Vietnam's National Traffic Safety Committee, 13,713 reported road traffic accidents nationwide led to 11,060 deaths and 10,306 injuries in 2010. Data compiled by the Ministry of Health show that in 2008, 50 percent of children who suffered traumatic brain injuries from road traffic accidents were not wearing helmets.
Though updated child-specific data are not available for Vietnam, globally, children and adolescents under the age of 18 account for 40 percent of traffic fatalities, most from riding motorbikes.
Seven months since the shocking death of two year-old Dinh Phuong Vy in Thu Duc District, parents are still haunted by the tragedy.
In mid-June, Vy's mother Le Thi Loan, panicking because of the loud honking of a truck behind her, braked suddenly, causing her bike to fall. Her two-year-old daughter, who was not wearing a helmet, was crushed to death by the truck.
"I am still haunted by that accident," said 32-year-old Tran Thi Hien, the mother of a four-year-old son in Thu Duc District.
Motorcycles account for at least 95 percent of Vietnam's 31 million registered vehicles, Transport Ministry figures show. The number of registered motorcycles recorded a daily increase of around 7,000 in 2009.
Although the horrific death of the two-year old girl might not be helmet-related, Hien said she has made her son wear a helmet since last year.
"I hope I'm not among a very few parents doing so," said Hien, who works for an oil company in District 1. "Traffic is becoming crazier than ever in the city. Who knows what they will do next?"