News and activities of the International Institute of Medicine and Science Asean Chapter of IIMS, Inc. California, USA - Health care, Life Science, Education, Research, Philanthropy. Asean is the economic organization of ten countries located in South East Asia: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Vietnam, where more than nine out of ten registered vehicles are
motorcycles, is grappling with how to boost road safety.
Vietnam, where more than nine out
of 10 registered vehicles are motorcycles and each household typically owns
two, is grappling with how to boost road safety. Each year close to 15,000
people (out of a population of 86 million) die in traffic-related accidents,
Since December 2007 adults have
been legally required to wear helmets when riding motorbikes, or otherwise face
fines of up to US$10; in April 2010 the government extended the requirement to
children aged six and above.
Adult helmet-wearing has increased from some 40
percent of motorbike riders in 2007 to more than 90 percent in February 2011.
Full-face, half-face, and open-face helmets are seen alongside “tropical”
helmeted riders who choose the lighter-weight headgear with more ventilation.
According to the national traffic
police, in the first nine months of 2012, there were nearly 6,600 road traffic
deaths – mostly involving motorcycles – and some 25,000 people injured, an
almost 18 percent and 28.5 percent drop from the same period in 2011,
“This is thanks to helmets,” the
division’s deputy director Tran Son told IRIN, crediting helmet-wearing
legislation for the drop.
A 2008 review of 61 international studies concluded that helmets
reduced the risk of head injury by around 69 percent and death by almost 42
Yet, excuses abound for why
riders forego them. “I don’t want to mess up my hair;” “My mother doesn’t wear
one;” “I am going such a short distance;” “Fate determines when we die, not a
helmet;” and “Why buy my child a quality motorcycle helmet when she will outgrow
Baseball cap “helmets”
Even with a helmet law in place,
the percentage of head, face, and neck injuries among patients (not only caused
by traffic accidents) has increased at Vietnam’s largest surgical center, the
Health Ministry’s Viet Duc University Hospital in the capital, Hanoi. In 2008,
the first year after the new helmet law was enacted, 34 percent of injury
patients had head, face, and neck injuries, which increased to 36 percent the following
year, 42 percent the year after, and 43.5 percent in 2011.
The hospital’s deputy chief of
planning, Nguyen Duc Chinh, blamed substandard helmets for the rising injury
Little of what is worn as
protective headgear – most notably the baseball cap “helmet” – offers real
protection, according to a recent World Health Organization (WHO) and Hanoi
School of Public Health study in three northern provinces. Less than 20 percent of
581 helmets surveyed withstood laboratory impact tests.
Youths preferred baseball
caps-cum-helmets with a chin strap, while some women opted for helmets with
openings in the back to keep their ponytails in place.
Even as reported road traffic
accidents have fallen in recent years, the “seriousness” of the complications,
fatalities and injuries they cause – has increased, according to the Ministry of Transportation.
The ministry’s Department of
Traffic Safety deputy director-general Le Minh Chau told IRIN head-on
collisions between large vehicles coupled with lack of awareness among
motorbike drivers about expressway safety are two reasons: two serious
accidents happened recently on the elevated ring road in Hanoi when
motorcyclists disobeyed a ban to enter and immediately died.
A 2009 WHO
preliminary study of the impact of the 2007 helmet law on head
injuries calculated a 16 percent drop in risk of road traffic head injuries
(and an 18 percent drop in risk of death) from three months before the passage
of the 2007 helmet law to three months afterwards.
One of the study’s co-authors,
Jonathon Passmore, technical officer for road safety and injury prevention at
WHO in Vietnam, told IRIN that five years after the law’s passage, “limited
information” shows the law continues to reduce head injuries, but that the
percentage of riders wearing helmets is down, while use of low-quality helmets
WHO is finalizing a hospital
survey of road injury patients dating back to 2006 to determine the impact the
helmet law has had on road deaths and injuries.
For the government’s National
Traffic Safety Committee vice-chairman Nguyen Hoang Hiep the large number of
low-quality helmets is attributable to “lack of the state clamping down, and
[the] psychology of riders.”
As of May 2011, Vietnam’s
Ministry of Industry and Trade has certified 444 helmets from some 80
manufacturers. But this has not stopped vendors from selling “helmet-like”
gear, said Hiep.
“A vendor simply says that an
[uncertified] helmet is not intended for motorbike use, but rather is just a
hat for going out. The state cannot fine the seller in this case because it is
not like the vendor has hung out a sign saying ‘motorcycle helmets for sale
here.’ [The vendor] can argue that it is not his responsibility how people use
their purchases. The state’s hands are then tied,” said Hiep.
According to recent WHO market
research, of 80 helmets purchased new in Hanoi that were marked with the state
certification label, 54 percent did not pass safety tests.
For Greig Craft, president of the
Asia Injury Prevention Foundation (AIP), a U.S.-based NGO in Hanoi, counterfeit
helmets have become a “hot” commodity and need to be outlawed just as fake
medicines have been.
“Like anything in the developing
world, the counterfeiters have got into the business. The regulatory system is
not working. But you would need an army to gather up unsafe helmets,” he said.
“The problem [uncertified
helmets] is so widespread and there are just not enough police to enforce it.
For a short period, we could do it, but not over the longer-term,” said Hiep.
Traffic police are posted mostly in cities and along national highways, leaving
rural areas bereft of official reminders of an oft-unheeded helmet law.
Nevertheless, the state must find
a way to strengthen helmet safety regulations, Hiep acknowledged. “We must act
on principle alone. Once we have uncovered a loophole, we must close it.”
Four government ministries are
expected soon to issue a circular laying out tougher regulations in the production,
distribution, circulation and use of helmets. “The state will more closely
oversee [the above],” said Hiep, without explaining the how.
Motorbike riders choose cheap,
vanity helmets as a fashion statement while trying to cut costs, Hiep said.
A state-certified helmet costs on
average US$10, while counterfeits and helmet-like headgear cost only a fraction
of that, according to the WHO’s three-province helmet analysis, which noted
that the cheaper the helmets, the more likely they were to fail safety tests.
Costly medical treatment
But these savings pale in
comparison to hospitalization, said Viet Duc Hospital planning official Chinh,
who estimated door-to-door costs for head trauma treatment total about
US$1,000, roughly a year’s salary.
“I was only going a short
distance,” said Dang Van Tuy, 28, repeating a rural motorbike mantra to explain
why he was not wearing a helmet when he fell off his motorbike in Hai Duong
Province, 45 km from Hanoi. IRIN met him and other road injury patients at Viet
Next to him was Nguyen Van Tham,
23, from Bac Giang Province, also some 40 km from the capital. A family member
spoke for Tham, who was in discomfort and unable to speak. “We found him
mangled and purple. We do not know what happened or if he wore a helmet.”
Health workers and activists have
for years called for helmet wearing legislation to apply to children under six,
who are currently exempt.
For children six and older,
enforcement is patchy. A February 2011 Vietnam National University study
estimated some 30 percent of children wear helmets based on observations at
schools and traffic intersections.
According to AIP, at least 500 children
a month or 6,000 children a year under the age of 10 are killed in road
accidents, mostly involving motorcycles.
Vietnam is one of ten countries
worldwide where the U.S.-based Bloomberg Family Foundation has invested, in total,
$125 million to boost road safety from 2010-2014. These countries – Brazil,
Cambodia, China, Egypt, India, Kenya, Mexico, Russian Federation, Turkey, and
Vietnam – account for half the world’s annual estimated 1.3 million road
traffic fatalities, according to WHO’s first global report on road safety published in
2009. The next update is expected in early 2013. In addition to Vietnam,
support to Kenya, India, and Cambodia is focused on boosting helmet-wearing and
“Putting helmets on kids – ‘how
quaint,’ people say when they learn what I do,” said Craft. “What they do not
know is that it is a road war out here.”